One of the toughest tasks for parents of teens is teaching their adolescent children to resist peer pressure. Why?
Because saying ‘no’ when everyone else is saying ‘yes’ makes a teenager stand out as different. And teenagers generally don’t want to be different.
They say they want to be original, but send them to school on a mufti-day and they all look the same! They want to fit in, be popular. They want to be like everyone else and do what everyone else is doing.
Trying to teach your children to say ‘no’ to alcohol, or ‘no’ to breaking curfew, or ‘no’ to unwanted or premature intimacy or pornography can seem almost impossible when all the ‘cool’ kids are doing it.
So here are four ideas to help you prevent peer pressure getting the better of your teenagers – especially in relation to alcohol:
Psychological researchers have discovered that we can make our teenagers think things and even do things based on what is in their environment. It’s called ‘priming’.
In one study, participants were exposed to a range of words like wash, clean, bathe, water, and sanitise, and then they were shown the letters SO_P. If that were you, how would you complete the word?
Conversely, if you were exposed to the words, hot, tasty, steaming, eat, creamy, vegetable, and hungry, and then you saw the same three letters, SO_P, you might complete the word differently.
The researchers reported that the different context makes most people see SO_P as “soap” the first time and “soup” the second time.
A later study found that if participants were primed with the stereotype of professors (or the trait ‘intelligent’) they performed better on a general knowledge quiz, but if the prime they were given was ‘soccer hooligans’ (or the trait stupid) scores on the quiz were poorer. The same kind of ‘priming’ has been done with words related to being rude or polite, and being in a hurry or walking slowly.
What does this have to do with peer pressure?
The primes in our children’s environment can affect the decisions they’ll make. What movies and music influences them? What are they reading? What messages do their clothing or wall posters promote? What advertising and marketing are they exposed to? What memes are they liking and sharing on facebook? These environmental cues can prime behaviour that can help them or hinder them in their decisions to make good choices around things like alcohol, drugs, sex, curfews, and so on.
Research has shown the having goals is one of the most powerful ways to succeed in life. Goals help us determine our priorities and values. And they can have a profound impact on how our teenagers respond to peer pressure.
Laith was 16 years old. He was an up-and-coming swimming sensation. He had an important race a few weeks away. But it was Saturday night. There was no swimming scheduled for Sunday. And he was at a party where everyone was drinking. He was getting serious pressure. But he was able to say ‘no’ to drinking because he had a bigger goal in mind than following the crowd. Winning his races mattered more, and those plans overcame the peer pressure to drink.
To help teens say ‘no’ to things that aren’t in their best interest, it helps to have a bigger something they can say ‘yes’ to. Whether it’s sports, academics, family, religion, or something else, having a goal that requires our teens to say no to what is harmful makes it far easier for them to say ‘no’.
Additionally, research tells us that a surprisingly high percentage of teens say they don’t want to drink, but at crunch time they’re easily swayed by peers. Having a bigger goal can help them stand firm when they prefer to abstain.
Perhaps the greatest protective factor – in terms of our children’s wellbeing, resilience, values, and decisions around alcohol – is YOU. Preserving your relationship with your teenager is vital. In fact, research tells us that peer pressure becomes stronger when a teens’ relationship with parents breaks down. When the relationship you have with your teen is strong, your teen is less likely to be easily swayed by peers.
How do you keep that relationship strong?
The answer is simple in theory – limits and warmth. But it’s much harder in practise. Our teens push against our limits and take our warmth for granted. Try these ideas:
- Enjoy your teens by spending time with them without an agenda
- Make your relationship fun – at least some of the time
- Be accepting of their friends, even the ones you don’t like (but don’t tolerate inappropriate behaviour – remember that limits matter too)
- Set limits and be firm on them. Make sure your teens know what’s expected ahead of time, and what happens if they don’t measure up. Then follow through.
Even if your teen has a great relationship with you, has clear goals for the future, and has a supportive environment with minimal bad ‘priming’ influences, peer pressure will still exist, particularly around alcohol. After all, there is a fairly powerful expectation in Australia that everyone drinks. This is why preparation is the final ‘P’ to prevent peer pressure getting the best of your teen.
From time to time, perhaps when you get some one on one time, have one of those conversations with your teen where you ask how they’d respond if their friends were pressuring them. Work through responses they might give that feel authentic. Prepare some remarks. The most obvious (and effective) are the straight out “No, I don’t drink” type. But if they feel uncomfortable with it, they might say
“No, I’m allergic to alcohol. It makes my speech slurred, my reaction time slow down, and my inhibitions disappear.”
Whatever you come up with, practise it. Put some pressure on your teen yourself in a role-play situation. When they say ‘no’ ask them, ‘how come?’ and play with the ideas.
Every teen will be pressured by peers. And most teens will want to say ‘yes’ and give in so that they can fit in. But with a positively primed environment, clear plans for why saying ‘no’ to any peer pressure is the best option, supportive parents, and some time devoted to preparation, our teens are far more likely to make decisions that they feel good about rather than being pressured by the people around them.