Wes: I have long pooh-poohed the whole idea of peer pressure. A fair amount of research backs me up, suggesting for the most part that peer influence is not nearly as great as that of the family. I realize that may be difficult to see as your child’s pink-striped hair and lip piercing remind you nothing of yourself. But in the long run, kids tend to revert to the influence of the home — both good and bad — rather than follow the trends of the teenage years.
For 18 years most kids have agreed with me that decisions to drink, do drugs, steal, have sex, etc., are their decisions and nobody else’s. I’ve even had kids argue with parents who see their friends as the problem, reminding them, “Nobody made me do that, Mom! It was my choice, Dad,” while the bewildered parents wonder why the kid isn’t trying to blame someone else, even as they are. Kids generally understand free will, and they know that peer pressure is more of an excuse than an explanation.
Now I’m starting to wonder. Teens increasingly report to me that their peers don’t simply pressure them but demand that they participate in things they aren’t always thrilled about. Girls insisting a peer have sex, not terribly concerned which boy might be waiting on the sidelines — somehow it just needs to get done. Teens report being pestered constantly with comments like, “Oh I’m gonna get you so high this year. Just wait!” in a tone that’s one part fun and an equal part menacing. This goes on day in and day out, and it gets pretty annoying, from what I’m hearing. And just to be clear, I’ve also worked with the kids who do the pestering, and they find nothing wrong with it.
Here’s my theory about this, shared by a growing cadre of teenagers: Sex and substance abuse are no longer experimental. Shoplifting is no longer seen as a criminal act. These things are an open part of daily teen life in a way they weren’t in the past. What used to be rebellious and reckless is now common and accepted. While “not every one is doing it,” a whole lot are, meaning those who do not partake are in frequent, direct contact with those who do. I think the involved teens are getting increasingly uncomfortable with the uninvolved, because it forces them to consider the gray areas they’d prefer to ignore. For these kids involvement must be seen as OK as a matter of dogma, and anyone who isn’t signing up is questioning the faith. In sociology we refer to this kind of influence as “stigmatizing deviance” in order to control it, and in this case the deviant is the non-participant. So any semblance of the groovy old “live and let live” attitude gives way to the demand that kids conform to the social norm.
In the end, I still believe parental influence wins out by early adulthood. But there is a fair-sized chasm between here and there that we call adolescence. There’s no evidence that teaching kids to “just say no” to peer pressure does much good, nor do programs on the evils of drug use or sex do more than make kids curious. Those values need to come from the home, where parents express a clear set of ideals and behaviors surrounding these topics and give valid and clear reasons why.
Ben: Does peer pressure exist? Yes. Is it dangerous? Yes, but I would argue that there is something more dangerous that gets less attention in most junior high health classes: peer influence. My defense against peer pressure is not to pull away from my peers but to reach out to my friends. Friends are one of the greatest combatants against whatever pressure may exist. Peer pressure thrives on weak resistance. Once you add enough people to the opposition, the pressure begins to crumble. If a friend pressures you, find a different one to back you up. Even if it continues, it’s going to have a harder time taking down a two-person resistance.
Where peer pressure is direct and deliberate, influence is subtler and often unintentional. It’s one thing for your friends to tell you to have sex and another for them to always talk about recreational sex like they’re discussing the weather. Pressure bangs at the front door and demands that we change our mind, while influence can sneak through the back and change our minds before we realize it.
Influence is more difficult to combat, because it’s more complicated than just saying no. Fighting a negative influence requires a heightened sense of awareness to what you really believe and why you believe it. Influence often wins out because it exposes the fact that we really don’t know why we live the way we do. If your only reason for staying drug-free is because “you just shouldn’t use drugs,” then don’t expect that reasoning to stand when it’s challenged, directly or indirectly.
For parents, that means it’s important to not only tell your kids what’s right and wrong but to tell them why. An idea with a good foundation is far better than an idea that’s been beaten into place repeatedly with the same circular reasoning. For the rest of us, that means we need to take a look at what we think and question where that finds its root. How many of our beliefs are actually assumptions? If we find no root, now is the time to plant, to turn to those wiser than us and really ask why.
Our roots are important. If we become satisfied with weak roots, then the idea they support topples over. Instead, plant strong roots, which starts with asking why.
— Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Ben Markley is a senior at Free State High School. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.