It is perfectly normal for anyone to mimic the behaviour of influential peers – people you spend time with who shape the way you behave. In some instances this tendency can be highly positive. We might gain confidence when trying activities that were previously beyond our comfort zone or taking part in classroom discussions.
However, some peers actively apply pressure to make us do or say things we wouldn’t normally – they may coerce us into behaviour we or others perceive as morally and/or ethically wrong or harmful to health. For school-age children this might include group pressure to stay out late, start smoking or drinking alcohol, vandalise local property and worse. For example, about 207,000 11- to 15-year-olds take up smoking every year in the UK (Cancer Research UK, 2013) many of who are doing so because of peer pressure. We may be reluctantly drawn into bad behaviour because we want to fit in or be liked or because we’re being psychologically bullied. Thankfully there are some proven ways to resist peer pressure.
We’ve all heard adults using the well-worn cliché that you wouldn’t jump off a cliff just because your friends went first. Unfortunately this logical argument doesn’t hold true for instances in the home and classroom. Parents and teachers might be keen to throttle us after we stick chewing gum on the underside of a table or deliberately defy a reasonable request or be nasty to another child. However, we know there’s no real risk of meeting an early death.
It takes a considerable amount of moral strength to resist peer pressure. We may be perceived as lame or boring or ‘goody-goodies’ for making seemingly sensible decisions. There may be a fear of losing friends because of a reluctance to go with the crowd. However, it’s important to consider the potentially negative repercussions both for yourself and anybody else concerned. Misbehaviour could result in exclusion or expulsion from school or failure to make the grades you need for a place at university. More than anything, perhaps, you risk letting down the people who care most about you.
Regular watchers of The Simpsons will probably recall scenes featuring Homer’s inner angel and demon. These scenes are a reflection of what happens when we experience peer pressure. On the one hand we may ask ourselves what’s the worst that can happen. However, we may also experience negative sensations of anxiety and general unease. Such negative signals should be taken as a cue to stop and think. Consider the increased sense of independence and moral strength you will feel after saying ‘no’.
There are a number of tactics you can draw upon to help you keep everybody’s respect – and your self-respect – in the event of peer pressure.
The greatest of these is to choose your friends wisely. Try to pal around with those who have similar beliefs to your own. You can even help peers who you see are in danger of succumbing to negative peer pressure by inviting them – publicly or privately – to join your group.
Humour can be a particularly effective weapon for lightening the mood and highlighting the stupidity of any given situation. You could point out that the girls aren’t too keen on guys who smell like ashtrays. If you’re worried about offending any influential and powerful peers it might be worth making a self-deprecating comment. You could say that you’re keen to keep your dignity intact or simply too afraid to deal with the head teacher’s wrath.
Another good idea is to speak directly to the key influencers of your peer group. Take them to one side and openly state your concerns about the potentially negative repercussions. You’ll probably find they act quite differently when away from an audience. You might also earn some respect for standing up for your beliefs. Alternatively you could avoid potentially tricky social situations and seek new friends with a shared respect for reasonable moral boundaries.
If the issue of peer influence is causing you serious concern seek the advice of adults you respect and trust. There may be the option of chatting with a counsellor during school break times. You could even try the anonymity of a respected online forum or specialist help-line. If you have any other helpful suggestions please leave a comment below for other readers of the Tuturhub blog.