Peer pressure is defined as influence from members of one’s group of peers, but that deceptively simple characterization hides a darker meaning; that what we do — or don’t do — is often directly tied to the actions, words and opinions of our friends and those we look up to.
Beginning in pre-school, children learn the importance of fitting in and assimilation. But as they grow, they begin to receive conflicting messages. On one hand, well-meaning parents and teachers tell kids to “be themselves” and embrace their uniqueness, but then they constantly remind children of the importance of conformity in so many aspects of life.
Peer pressure can take many forms, but generally-speaking there’s the overt, or explicit form, and a more subtle form, referred to as implicit pressure. Children may experience one or the other, or a combination of the two. In its aggressive, explicit form, kids learn fairly quickly what sets them apart negatively from other kids. But, with implicit pressure, kids develop a sense of what makes them uncomfortably different from unspoken cues that can be harder to deduce and process.
When it comes to the emergence of peer pressure in a child’s life, “It begins as soon as children start to pay attention to what other children think about them,” said Brett Laursen, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Florida Atlantic University and a fellow at the American Psychological Association (APA, apa.org).
“We see it over behavior problems where one set of peers will influence another to act badly. We also see it over academic achievement where friends do better when they’re paired with other kids who are doing better in school. We see this as early as first grade,” Laursen told APA writer Audrey Hamilton.
A recent survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) labels peer-pressure as directly responsible for an increase in risky behavior, such as drinking, smoking, and potentially dangerous sexual behaviors. Though peer pressure is definitely a causative factor in drug and alcohol abuse, it can also be used as an excuse for poor impulse-control and individual lapses in judgment, according to the CDC.
Parents must he actively engaged in ways that may make their child uncomfortable, but inevitably will lead to a stronger bond and greater awareness of signs of trouble. Get to know your child’s friends and, whenever possible, take an active interest in their likes and habits, too. This is often the best gauge of what your child’s interests are likely to lean toward. Encourage your children to come to you with problems and be the one to initiate dialogue with them when you sense things are amiss.
Between the ages of 6 and 12, children, experts say, begin to see themselves and their place in society. During this time, even children from harmonious, healthy households learn that the world outside can be cruel and mean-spirited, and that “going along to get along” sometimes offers the path of least resistance.
In my own home, I know firsthand the effects of peer pressure on a sensitive child. Earlier this year, my husband and I spent quite a bit of money on a hairstylist for our 9-year-old daughter. Her hair needed professional care, and the stylist we found did a beautiful job, which my daughter also loved.
When I dropped my child off at school the next day, I reminded her about the pricey hairdo and cautioned her to leave her hair alone, and not to allow others to touch it. Upon picking her up after school, I was met by a nervous child who’d messily undone $70 worth of hairdressing because, as she put it, “The other kids didn’t like it.”
After my initial outrage and horror had subsided, my husband and I decided to use this experience to address how the influence of others led to her making a poor decision with nothing but negative consequences for her, and zero consequences for her opinionated classmates.
We talked to her about ways to respond to their criticism that could shut down any further conversation, or how walking away from negative, critical talk or expressing pride in her appearance may have thwarted or ended ridicule. We also talked about what we expected from her, as our daughter, regardless of the external forces surrounding her.
But above all, we reminded her that she has the power over her physical actions, not her classmates or friends. We reiterated that personal responsibility will always be a key component to a happy and successful life.
In the end, she and I worked together to re-do her beautiful hairstyle as it had originally been done and we discussed an appropriate punishment to help her retain the lesson.
My daughter learned that there were consequences for her disobedience, as well as that there is power in choosing to ignore the opinion of others. I learned to be more adept at styling and have more confidence in my abilities in the absence of a professional, and her classmates learned to love her as she is. It was a powerful lesson for us all.