As much as we talk about helping kids to resist “peer pressure,” it exists. Even for the most self-assured, independent-thinking child, social dynamics and peer relationships are an influence on behaviors and attitudes. Your kids may tell you that peer pressure isn’t so bad -- and may actually believe that themselves -- but the role of peers in actions and decisions making is strong, and sometimes almost invisible. When your daughter chooses a specific shirt in the store or your son pushes a little too hard during gym, peer influence likely played a role.
Peer pressure is kind of like swimming -- for both parents and kids. Managing it is learned behavior, and one can get really good at dealing with it. But even expert swimmers need to take care in the water and be alert for changes in conditions.
The desire to fit in
The influence of peers is, in part, rooted in a desire to fit in. It's a normal human characteristic to want to be a part of something bigger. We join groups -- clubs, churches and online communities -- because we want to be a part of something. Especially during the uncertainty of adolescence, this fitting in can be of utmost importance to a child. That shirt your daughter chose or that extra lap around the track during gym is a part of that fitting in. It's the outward signal that your child is part of that bigger group, even if your child feels very differently inside.
While most of the time this undercurrent of influence is just that -- influence running just under the surface and mostly manageable -- there are times when the current gets so strong, it's almost a riptide. That's when influence turns to pressure and you need to be available to help your child identify and navigate the tide of mob (peer!) behavior. The power of the group can feel so overwhelming to your child that he or she may feel like there's not choice but to go along, especially if not going along risks social acceptance.
Subtle and overt signals -- and responses
You never know when these moments will pop-up. Parenting is hard and often throws you these curveballs when you least expect it! Signals about the role peers are playing in your child's decision making may be subtle (choosing a navy blue shirt over the long-favored pink, for example) or overt (participating in poor behavior toward a once close friend, or some other obvious action that seems out of character), but they are there for the recognition. We as parents need to be open to recognizing all signals from our kids, not just the positive or the negative.
And just as some signals are subtle and some overt, the appropriate response will vary by situation as well. Sometimes it's reassurance, and sometimes it's a hard, deep talk that your child needs.
So what to do?
Being emotionally present and available to your child, keeping lines of communication open, being ready with alternative solutions and activities and not dismissing your influence in your child's life are all ways you can be the lifeguard when your child starts to tire in the tide of peer influence. Peer influence is going to happen. Blinding yourself to it or dismissing it isn't going to help your child navigate these waters. Recognize it for what it is and manage emergence of issues on a case-by-case basis.
With an understanding of the role peers play in your child's life, you can be at the ready to manage the influence and prevent the influence from turning into confidence-drowning pressure.
More on peer pressure
Helping teens combat peer pressure
10 Ways to help kids really say no and buck peer pressure
Parents are the perfect antidote to peer pressure