The Power of Peers
In mid-adolescence a peer group can become a second family of the utmost importance. The more separated from, or opposed to, family a teenager grows, the more attached to friends he or she becomes. (Family changes such as divorce and remarriage often increase teenage dependence on peers.)
Through shared experience and adventure, through support and sympathy, peers are there for each other. They provide what parents cannot — companionship in quest of worldly experimentation and social independence.
Belonging to a peer group, however, comes at a price. To gain and maintain membership in good standing, the teenager must make certain sacrifices.
A certain amount of individual freedom is given up because conformity is the price of acceptance. “You have to behave like us, believe like us, look like us, like us best, and not do better than us.”
A certain amount of personal honesty is given up. “You have to pretend to enjoy whatever the group decides to do.”
A certain amount of control is given up. “You have to go along with the group to prove you belong.”
There is no such thing as a peer group that does not exert peer pressure. However, no group can pressure your teenager into doing anything without his or her permission. Never accept peer pressure as an excuse for doing wrong. A lot of times a teen's readiness to make a bad decision was just a matter of waiting for the right (or wrong) time to come along.
“But you don't understand,” your teenager may protest in his defense. “I couldn't say no!” By this statement, your teenager means that if he doesn't conform, he won't belong. At this point, your teenager needs some disciplinary guidance about how to resist peer pressure without having to say an outright “No.” He or she needs some strategies for refusing without losing face or social standing.
Resisting Peer Pressure
Tell your teenager to play for delay when he feels pressure to do what he doesn't want to do. The more he can delay, the more time he buys to think his way out of the situation. So he can say, “I don't feel like doing that right now.” And if peers get on him for refusing, he can get right back on them. He can get angry: “I didn't say not ever, I said not now. And I don't like being pushed around! Not by anyone!” (They can respect that.)
Or he may propose doing something else first. “I'm hungry. I want to get something to eat before we do that.” That's another way to play for delay. Or he can say he needs to use the bathroom, taking time alone to gather time to think. Yet another delay.
Why do teenagers have so much trouble saying no to peers when saying no to parents is so easy?
Because refusal won't drive away parental love, but it may well jeopardize standing with peers.
Delay often works because group ideas tend to be ruled by impulse, so that what everyone was thinking of doing before he went to the bathroom may have changed direction by the time he comes out. Finally, you can also give him permission to use you for a lie. “I'd like to try some of that stuff, but it's not worth it. My parents test me for drugs, and if I ever show up positive, they'll put off my ever driving a car.”
Finally, not all peer pressure leads young people astray by compelling them to act together in ways each would not act alone. It can also offer protection. Friends do look out for friends, often keeping them out of trouble. Not all peer pressure is bad. When your teenager states, “We take care of each other,” he or she is often telling the truth.