Peer Pressure Primer

by Mary Ann Carrado

How much do you know about the peer pressure affecting your kids? Peer pressure becomes an issue for most children, sometimes starting as early as kindergarten and peaking during the adolescent years. Here is the latest expert advice about recognizing peer pressure and helping your kids cope.

What is Peer Pressure?
Children usually experience their first bouts of peer pressure in school as they begin to form social groups that they rely on to provide guidelines for how they should behave. “An important reason why peer pressure exists is its powers to create social norms,” says Naomi Sussman, a private practice clinical social worker in Princeton, NJ.

“For particular age groups it is essential,” she says. “Adolescents want to belong and be like their peers. This helps them in forming a personal identity during this developmental period. But you can find peer pressure in toddler play groups where children can be pressured, often to the point of frustration, by the child who wants control of a toy.”

“Peer pressure could be positive or negative,” says school psychologist Olga Yatzus, director of The Kid’s Couch, Inc., in Wilmington, DE. “Positive peer pressure could take the form of teens trying harder to succeed in academics, sports, etc. Negative peer pressure can influence teens to experiment with drugs and alcohol, use tobacco, skip school, take dangerous risks, to become more defiant, and become sexually active.”

Negative Effects
“Children try to act and think like the group in order to not be rejected or isolated,” says Robert Petruzzi, PhD, co-director of Associates of Springfield Psychological, in Spring-field, PA. “Those who don’t succeed and are not like ‘the norm’ often have a very difficult time in school and social settings. As adults, we would leave a job if we were really unhappy with the position or the other workers, but children are usually stuck in the situation.”

“Boys pressure girls for sexual activity as early as elementary school,” says Hilary Akman, a private practice counselor in Absecon, NJ. “There is peer pressure to cheat to achieve higher grades.”

Akman says that negative peer pressure occurs because it works. “It is rewarding for the person doing the pressuring, because most kids being pressured will comply. Every human being has a desire to be validated and accepted by others. The
prob­lem comes when that desire to be accepted drives us to change who we are to conform to others’ standards. This is hard for adults to master, let alone children and teens.”

Signs of Peer Pressure
What are the signs that a child is under peer pressure? “Not wanting to go to school or hearing the child talk of being picked on. If you’re a good listener, they’ll probably tell you some of what’s happening,” Dr. Petruzzi says. “If your child becomes isolated and not invited to things, or is overly concerned about appearance, these could be signs.”

Says Sussman, “Behavior changes may be a tipoff to something in the child’s social life. It also never hurts to just ask a question.

“Changes in behavior include sleep changes, friend changes, attitude changes and sometimes clothing. But parents should recognize the difference between self-expression and social strife with peers.” Sussman says behavior that should raise concerns often involves self-harm, lack of socializing and drastic grade or school changes.

“Persistent asking for the latest and greatest new toy or fashion” is a sign of peer pressure, according to Ackman. “Children could become much more highly emotional if told ‘no,’ because for them it doesn’t just mean not getting the thing that they want, it means not being able to be accepted by their friends,” she says.

Coping with Peer Pressure
“Children who are more susceptible to peer pressure often have poor self-esteem and a lack of self-confidence,” Yatzus says. “They often have a lot of anxiety about making friends and are willing to do almost anything to be included in a group that makes them feel validated. They begin to resent higher achieving students and look to the ‘bad kids’ because they feel that they can connect to them.”

“Every child must find his or her voice,” Sussman says. “Peer pressure is often, though painful, a great opportunity to find that voice. When a child gets the feeling that something isn’t right, then she should trust her gut feeling. Sometimes running it by an adult helps this process. Remember not to judge or tell them what to do or they’ll stop talking to you,” Dr. Petruzzi says. “Give ideas when asked but don’t say, ‘You must do this.’

“The child needs to learn to walk away without being dramatic, explosive or showing significant hurt. They then need to find others who share common interests both in and out of school.” Often, joining organized activites can bring together kids with shared interests.

Feeling Valued
“Children also need to feel that they have something of value to contribute,” Yatzus says. “Giving children important tasks, encouraging them to help, asking for their ideas or thoughts, valuing their opinion, and allowing them to feel like an ‘expert’ gives them self-confidence and self-esteem.”

“If pressured into doing an activity they really don’t want to do, they could say something like. ‘No thanks, that’s really not my thing. Why don’t we do X instead?’” Ackman says.

Dr. Petruzzi advises parents to seek help when peer pressure becomes severe. “It doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent, it means you need support. Watch what’s happening on the Internet, as bullying and pressure take place there as well.”
Have faith in your child to make the right choices. Let him know that you trust him and whatever hap­pens you’ll never stop loving him.”

Mary Ann Carrado is a local freelance writer.