Peer pressure is the influence of a social group on an individual.
Children and teenagers feel social pressure to conform to the group of peers with whom they socialize. This peer pressure can influence how children dress, what kind of music they listen to, and what types of behavior they engage in, including risky behaviors such as using drugs, cigarettes, and alcohol, and engaging in sex. The intensity of peer pressure differs from situation to situation.
Peer groups are usually cliques of friends who are about the same age. Peer pressure can begin in early childhood with children trying to get other kids to play the games they want. It generally increases through childhood and reaches its intensity in the preteen and teen years. Virtually all adolescents in middle and high school deal with peer pressure, often on a daily basis. It is how children and teens learn to get along with others of their own age group and eventually learn how to become independent. Depending on the group trying to apply the influence, peer pressure can be negative or positive.
Starting in middle school, children begin to spend more time with their friends and less time with their parents and family. Although some children remain loners and not part of any group, most preteens tend to be part of a small group of friends called a clique. In children ages eleven to fourteen, it is most common for members of these cliques to be of the same sex. Children will spend a lot of time with friends in their clique, interacting by going to the movies or the mall, talking on the
Children also generally belong to a crowd, which is a larger group of kids from several cliques. While members of the cliques are close friends, members of the crowd outside a clique are casual acquaintances. Crowds are often large groups with common interests such as athletes (jocks), kids who like school (preppies), kids lacking good looks or social skills but who excel at particular intellectual interests (nerds), and drug users (druggies).
Some kids give in to peer pressure because they want to be liked, to fit in, or because they worry that other kids may make fun of them if they do not go along with the group. Others may go along because they are curious to try something new that others are doing. The idea that "everyone is doing it" may influence some kids to ignore their better judgment or their common sense. Peer pressure can be extremely strong and seductive. Experiments have shown how peer pressure can influence children to change their minds from what they know for sure is acceptable behavior to unacceptable behavior just because everyone else in their peer group is doing it. These studies have also shown that all it takes for individuals to stand their ground on what they know is right is for one other peer to join them. That principle holds true for youth of any age in peer pressure situations, according to the Online organization KidsHealth (<www.kidshealth.org>).
Children and adolescents cannot always avoid negative peer pressure. It may continue to be a fact of life through childhood, adolescence, and into adulthood. Quoted from an article in the September 2002 issue of Current Health 2, A Weekly Reader Publication, the following are strategies young people can use to deal with negative peer pressure effectively:
- Avoid putting yourself in situations that make you feel uncomfortable. For example, if you don't want to start smoking, stay away from areas where you know kids go to smoke.
- Choose your friends wisely. If you hang around with people who share your values, chances are you'll never be asked to do something you don't want to do.
- Think about the consequences whenever you are asked to do something you are not sure about. Stop for a moment and ask: Will this activity get me in trouble? Will it be harmful to my health?
- Be true to yourself. Think about the reasons why you are considering doing something you are uncomfortable with. Is it to gain popularity? Although there is nothing wrong with wanting to be popular, there are right ways and wrong ways to achieve it. If you change your behavior just to fit in with a particular group, you are not being true to yourself.
- Learn how to say no. This is perhaps the most difficult thing in the world for many people to do, but it is an essential skill if you are to successfully fend off negative peer pressure. There are many ways to say no, some of them subtle and some of them a little more "in your face." Several examples are: "You see it your way. I see it my way." "If you are really a friend, then back off." "You must think I'm pretty dumb to fall for that one."
Peer pressure can be found in groups as young as age two, when children will do things simply because other kids are doing it or tell them to. This can effect the child's behavior, social and emotional development, eating habits, play time, and sleeping patterns.
Preschoolers will go out of their way to think and act like their friends, even though they know it may go against what they have been taught by their parents. At the ages of three and four, children start to see there are other values, opinions, and rules besides those set by their parents. They may demand to do things that their parents do not allow, such as watching television beyond a certain time or time limit, eating junk food, and playing with toys their parents do not deem appropriate, such as toy guns, simply because their friends do so.
At this age, it is normal for children to start challenging their parents, testing the limits and rules to see how far they can bend or break them. Many pediatricians suggest parents should remain firm, not overreact, and then move on. Peer pressure can have positive benefits for preschoolers, such as taking a nap or eating vegetables when they see their friends doing it.
At ages five to eight, children make a concerted effort to please their friends, classmates, and playmates. Peer pressure can be a positive influence if friends encourage each other to strive to do better in school, sports, and creative activities. For example, a child may try harder at soccer if he or she has a friend who does well or may read more if that is what a friend does.
Peer pressure can also have a negative influence on children ages five to eight when a friend or friends encourage them to act in a way that is not natural for the child. Many pediatricians and child psychologists say it is best not to prohibit the child from hanging out with these friends but to make sure the child is aware of the consequences of unacceptable behavior. Focus on specific negative behaviors and explain why they are bad. Most children will not respond well if a parent or primary caregiver forbids them to associate with a friend or group of friends.
The effects of peer pressure usually begin to be seen heavily by middle school and through high school. As children turn into adolescents, involvement with their peers and the attraction of peer identification increases. Teens begin to experience rapid physical, emotional, and social changes, and they begin to question adult standards and the need for parental guidance. It is reassuring for teens to turn for advice to friends who understand and sympathize with them.
Adolescents expand their peer relationships to occupy a central role in their lives, often replacing their parents and family as their main source of advice, socializing, and entertainment activities. The peer group is a source of affection, sympathy, understanding, and experimentation. It is also a supportive setting for achieving the two primary developmental tasks of teens: finding answers to questions about their identity and discovering their autonomous self that is separate and independent from their parents.
At adolescence, peer relations expand to occupy a particularly central role in young people's lives. New types (opposite sex, romantic ties) and levels (crowds) of peer relationships emerge. Peers typically replace the family as the center of a young person's socializing and leisure activities. Teenagers have multiple peer relationships, and they confront multiple peer cultures that have remarkably different norms and value systems. The perception many adults have that peer pressure is one culture or a unified front of dangerous influence is inaccurate. More often than not, peers reinforce family values, but they have the potential to encourage problem behaviors as well. Although the negative peer influence is overemphasized, more can be done to help teenagers experience the family and the peer group as mutually constructive environments. The following are facts about parent, adolescent and peer relations.
- During adolescence, parents and adolescents become more physically and psychologically distant from each other. This normal distancing is seen in decreases in emotional closeness and warmth, increases in parent-adolescent conflict and disagreement, and an increase in time adolescents spend with peers. Unfortunately, this tendency sometimes is encouraged by parents who are emotionally unavailable to their teenaged children.
- Increases in family strains such as economic pressures or divorce may prompt teenagers to depend more on peers for emotional support. By the high school years, most teenagers report feeling closer to friends than parents. Stress caused by work, marital dissatisfaction, family break-up caused by divorce, entering a step-family relationship, lower family income or increasing expenses, all produce increased individual and family stress.
- In 10 to 20 percent of families, parents and adolescents are in distressed relationships characterized by emotional coldness and frequent outbursts of anger and conflict. Unresolved conflicts produce discouragement and withdrawal from family life. Adolescents in these families are at high risk for various psychological and behavioral problems.
- Youth gangs, commonly associated with inner-city neighborhoods, are a recognizable peer group among youth in smaller cities, suburbs, and even rural areas. Gangs are particularly visible in communities with a significant portion of economically disadvantaged families and when parents are conflicted, distant, or unavailable.
- Formal dating patterns of the 1980s have been replaced in the early 2000s with informal socializing patterns in mixed-sex groups. This may encourage casual sexual relationships that heighten the risk of exposure to human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and other sexually transmitted diseases.
- There has been an increase in part-time employment among youth, but it has had little impact on peer relations. To find time for work, teenagers drop extracurricular activities, reduce time spent on homework, and withdraw from family interactions, but they protect time spent with friends.
Negative peer pressure occurs when a child's or teen's friends or other people their age try to convince them to do something that is either harmful to their body or is against the law. Examples include drinking alcohol, taking drugs, smoking cigarettes, cutting classes, vandalizing, and stealing. Although teens usually know when something is bad for them, they often choose to do it because they want to be liked, to fit in, to be accepted, or because they're afraid they'll be looked down upon or made fun of.
Bruce A. Epstein in "How to combat negative peer pressure," in the September 2002 issue of Current Health 2, A Weekly Reader Publication, is quoted as saying, The "desire to be accepted by their peers is perhaps the strongest motivating force during dolescence." Many studies reinforce his theory. One study showed, for example, that a student who knew the correct answer to a question gave the wrong answer just because everyone else in the class gave the wrong answer.
There are various reasons why children are disliked by their peers. When trying to find ways to help these children, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking about what they do that bothers others. This focuses only on reducing these behavior problems but most rejected children also lack important social skills. They may not cooperate or be responsive to others, or they may not know how to respond in certain social situations. Teaching a child the missing skills is often more effective in improving peer relationships than working only on reducing negative behavior.
Peer rejection in childhood often brings with it serious emotional difficulties. Rejected children are frequently discontent with themselves and with their relationships with other children. Many of these children experience strong feelings of loneliness and social dissatisfaction. Rejected children also report lower self-esteem and may be more depressed than other children. Peer rejection is also predictive of later life problems, such as dropping out of school, juvenile delinquency, and mental health problems. Dropping out of school seems to be a particularly frequent outcome. Results from research indicate that, on average, about 25 percent of low-accepted children drop out of school compared to 8 percent of other children, according to the National Network for Child Care at Iowa State University.
When to call the doctor
Parents may need to seek professional psychological help for children suffering from peer rejection, especially when the child is depressed or shows overly aggressive behavior. Help may also be needed for adolescents whose acceptance by peers relates to common negative behaviors, such as criminal activities, gang affiliation, bullying, smoking, and drug and alcohol abuse. Professional psychological help may also be needed if the child is depressed. If the child talks about or threatens suicide, professional help should be sought immediately.
Clique—A close group of friends having similar interests and goals and whom outsiders regard as excluding them.
Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)—A transmissible retrovirus that causes AIDS in humans. Two forms of HIV are now recognized: HIV-1, which causes most cases of AIDS in Europe, North and South America, and most parts of Africa; and HIV-2, which is chiefly found in West African patients. HIV-2, discovered in 1986, appears to be less virulent than HIV-1 and may also have a longer latency period.
Primary caregiver—A person who is responsible for the primary care and upbringing of a child.
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Ken R. Wells