Is peer pressure always negative? The science of peer pressure + 5 tips to overcome it

Paper boat overcomes the obstacle of peer pressure. To avoid or to deal with peer pressure

“Don’t give in to peer pressure.”

We’ve all gotten or given that advice at some point. But is peer pressure always a bad thing?

It’s actually more complex than that, says Dr. Deborah Gatlin, medical director and child psychiatrist at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.

“Generally, peer pressure has a negative connotation. But we all conform more or less,” says Dr. Gatlin. “You can’t have a society if you aren’t following some sort of rules, whether they’re actual laws or unspoken social cues. Peers and the pressure they put on you are just one layer of those rules. And that can be good or bad, depending upon what it pushes you to do.”

What role do a child’s peers play in their development?

Dr. Gatlin: Peers play a huge, critically important role in a child’s social and emotional development. As children grow up, they naturally separate more and more from their parents, and their peers take on a more significant role. From a socialization perspective, this is both natural and healthy — within reason.

What age does the peer influence really start to show?

Dr. Gatlin: You can see the peer influence as early as the toddler stage. Children start noticing their peers, interacting with them or engaging in parallel play. This is when they play near others but aren’t yet playing with them. Obviously, it doesn’t connect much to pressure or conformity at that age. But you’ll see that even preschoolers innately have that drive to socially connect.

What are the positive effects of peer pressure?

Dr. Gatlin: If the behaviors themselves are good, peers can have very positive effects.

Peers can:

  • Help each other learn new skills
  • Spark new interests in school, sports, reading, music, art, etc.
  • Push each other and create healthy competition
  • Help each other learn to follow rules, cooperate and compromise
  • Counteract dangerous impulses when a child is thinking of doing something that could harm themself or others

What are the negative effects of peer pressure?

Dr. Gatlin: In general, we’re much more familiar with the negative effects of peer pressure due to the fact they can be harmful.

In adolescence, peers might encourage each other to:

  • Skip class
  • Steal, cheat or vandalize property
  • Speed or act reckless while driving
  • Dress, act or eat a certain way (which can contribute to eating disorders)
  • Use drugs, alcohol or steroids
  • Share inappropriate material online
  • Engage in sexually risky behaviors
  • Try other risky behaviors

Dr. Gatlin: There are also subtle forms of peer pressure, such as bullying, misogyny, racism and sexism. One child might tell another that they have to make fun of certain people to fit in, or that “real men” or “real women” act a certain way. These subtle forms of peer pressure can be especially damaging. This is because they can shape a child’s self worth and their world view without always being obvious enough for parents or teachers to see.

90% of teens report having experienced peer pressure

What’s the difference between peer pressure and ‘peer presence’?

When adolescents are in the presence of peers, they may be likely to take more risks — even if no one is pressuring them to.

There was a study in which participants had to navigate a driving video game.

  • With friends in the room watching, adolescents regularly took more chances.
  • With friends out of the room watching on a monitor but unable to communicate, adolescents still took more chances.
  • Adults took the same amount of chances regardless of their circumstance.

So, with adolescents, while they couldn’t be pressured verbally, it didn’t matter. Even the knowledge of peer presence can cause them to take more risks.

Dr. Gatlin: Peer presence is an interesting idea, and one that shows how peer pressure can be:

  1. direct: I tell you what to do — or,
  2. indirect: the simple fact that I’m around may make you act differently.

As people, we always have a sense of who’s around and how we’re fitting in. I’d argue that that indirect peer pressure doesn’t ever go away, even for adults. I know if I walk into a crowded room, I instinctively scan it and see, Hmm, do I know anybody here? You don’t grow out of that! It’s just a fact of life when you’re part of a society.

How can parents help kids with peer pressure?

Dr. Gatlin: Open conversation is the best thing, and you don’t have to be heavy-handed to help.

Establish a pattern of talking to your kids every day, about trivial and important things alike. That way, you can prepare them for peer pressure naturally without harping on it and turning them into balls of anxiety. Give them the tools, and let them decide when to use them.

5 tips to help prepare kids for peer pressure

1. Have open conversations. 

Let your kids know they can come to you if they’re feeling pressured — no matter the topic. Tell them that if they don’t feel comfortable coming to you, they can talk to a grown up you both trust, such as a teacher, aunt or uncle, or a counselor.

2. Set a good example.

Show your kids what healthy decision-making and healthy relationships look like.

  • Show kids how to evaluate relationships. If you surround yourself with people who love and support you, your child will see that. If you surround yourself with people who hurt or pressure you, your child will see that as well.
  • If you say “no” to something unhealthy in your own life, consider sharing why you made that decision with your kids. That will help them understand it’s okay to say no when they feel uncomfortable, too.

3. Build their confidence. 

Kids who feel good about themselves are less vulnerable to peer pressure.

4. Teach them to trust their gut.

Teach your children the difference between right and wrong. Remind them that, when you know the right thing to do, you can be more confident in your actions.

5. Teach them how to get out of unsafe situations.

Talk about how to avoid or get out of unsafe situations.

  • Teach kids that it’s okay to walk away from anything that makes them feel uncomfortable.
  • Teach them how to help a friend who’s having trouble saying no by saying, “I’m with you — let’s go.”
  • Let your kids know you’ll always come get them, no questions asked, if they need help.

More tips on parenting teens from WellTuned

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).

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Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).