Peer pressure is something that almost all teenagers will experience at one point or another. And it’s not always a bad thing. If we look at social influence as a whole, there are many good ways in which it can inspire impressionable teenagers to become better individuals. But, it can just as easily persuade them into doing some pretty objectionable things as well. What’s important to take from this is that our kids are receptive to the environments that they’re placed in. This means that peer pressure and bullying are two things that can often go hand in hand.
Peer pressure and bullying in context: Antony’s story
Three friends have known each other for a long time. They were brought together by common interests, but are now about to be torn apart after admits to having interests that the other doesn’t agree with. Antony is left in the middle of this conflict. And now, he is manipulated into doing things that he doesn’t want to do out of pure fear. This story clearly shows how peer pressure and bullying can affect our children from an early age.
Antony is 15 years old and has two close friends, Rob and Dylan. They have always gone to school together, so they get along quite well. They’re typical teenage boys who love playing video games, kicking a soccer ball around, and are always trying to awkwardly chat up girls. But things are about to change for the trio. At the start of their school year, Rob decided that he did not want to be part of the football team anymore. So he plucked up the courage to tell his friends that he was going to quit. He admitted that he had never really liked sports and was far more interested in the dramatic arts. That very day, he signed up for the drama club and had since been selected to be a part of the school’s next play.
This didn’t really bother Antony very much at all. As long as his friend was happy, he was happy. Dylan, on the other hand, didn’t like this one bit. In his eyes, drama was for losers. He didn’t even want to be associated with someone from the drama club. But that Saturday, Antony invited Rob and Dylan to play some video games at his house.
Dylan makes his point
After getting together, it didn’t take long for the tension to build and for Dylan to say some pretty hurtful things to Rob. They sat down, chose their favourite game, and started playing quietly.
All of a sudden Dylan shouted, “Damn, you’re so behind Rob! Now you’re going to make us lose the game. Nice going, loser. I actually cannot believe how stupid you are.”
Rob started to feel quite uncomfortable. He didn't want Dylan to hate him. So he started looking for an opportunity to show Dylan that he was still the same person. At that moment, Dylan made a mistake in the game and it was the perfect opportunity for Rob to help him out. “Okay dude, so you’ve missed the shot that we were supposed to take. But it’s okay, I’ll make the first move and fix it,” he said. He was sure Dylan would appreciate the gesture.
But unfortunately, it wasn't well received. Instantly Dylan replied, “You don’t think I know this, a******? It looks like your whole job is to embarrass me and kick me when I’m already down.” Rob stayed quiet and left shortly after the game. He didn’t want to stick around for more conflict.
Antony was very confused by the whole situation. So, later that night he sent a message to Dylan to ask what on earth was happening. “Hey man, what was all that about between you and Robby earlier? Has he done something to p*** you off?”
“He’s such a loser, Ant. He’s even part of the drama club now. I mean how f****** stupid does he want us to look? Everyone’s going to laugh at him and I don’t want to be associated with him anymore. So if I see you hanging around with him from today, I will f*** you up and we will never speak again. Do you understand?” replied Dylan.
Antony was absolutely shell-shocked. This decision to join the drama team had made Dylan want to alienate Rob completely. He just couldn’t understand why. Antony didn’t want to stop being friends with Rob either, so he lied to Dylan and said, “Okay man, whatever”.
How peer pressure and bullying work together
One day, Rob and Antony were walking home from school together when they saw Dylan in the distance coming back from a tennis match. Antony panicked. He didn’t want to be caught with Rob, so he thought quickly and decided to play the victim in the situation. “Ew, Rob just get away from me, you weirdo. I’m so over you, I told you we were no longer friends, but you just won’t listen. You're such a creep for following me home. Please just leave.”
Dylan saw this and started grinning before joining the attack. “You’re a weird drama kid now. Go hang out with all the girls and pansy guys who work with them instead of playing sport with us.” Rob felt that the comment from Dylan was not as hurtful as the one from Antony. He knew Dylan didn’t want to be his friend anymore. But he had no idea how he could have manipulated Antony into feeling the same way.
In this case, it only took a bit of peer pressure and bullying from one person to edge Antony on, make him feel scared, and act irrationally in a sensitive situation. No other influence was needed, other than the one to be perceived as “being cool”.
Peer pressure in teens
Peer pressure and bullying is something that can happen at various points in someone’s life, but it’s most predominantly seen in tweens and teens. Now unlike what you may think – peer pressure in teens does not always necessarily result from their biological desire to be involved in risky behaviour. To understand this, we may have to take a step back and look at their childhood.
Some neuroscientists like to say that the teenage brain is “broken” since there are a few studies that show that they are wired to show more interest in more questionable behaviour such as drugs and alcohol abuse.
However, more recent studies are proving that this may not be true. During your teenager years, your whole body goes through critical biological developments. And one of the parts of your body that is subject to the most change is your brain.
Jay Giedd, a child psychiatrist at the National Institute of Mental Health shared the following in an interview with the National Public Radio (NPR), "The teen brain isn't broken.” Instead, he suggested that because of their brain’s rapid changes, it’s actually a time of massive opportunity if approached correctly. So while peer pressure and bullying is a risk, it doesn’t necessarily have to affect your child if the right approach is taken.
A bit more of the science behind peer pressure and bullying in teens
There’s a lot more than meets the eye when it comes to our highly sensitive, impressionable and capable teens. It’s up to us as parents to stimulate their mental potential from a young age if we want to see positive results throughout their lives.
Many neuroscientific studies have been conducted to show just how incredibly capable both the child and teenage brain really is. However, the most crucial point to remember throughout all of these studies is that the environment and cognitive stimulation play the predominant role in how your kids’ minds will develop.
Some of the findings include:
- A study conducted by the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience in London was able to show how the teenage brain goes through incredible structural changes in four areas that are associated with our ability to understand intention, beliefs and desires.
- Another study done by the Society for Neuroscience found that children who grew up with a lot of cognitive stimulation, and were nurtured by their parents, had a much better developed outer cortex layer of their brain. This area is predominantly associated with thinking and memory skills.
- Since teens are more likely to engage in risky behaviour because of their deep sensitivity and desire for approval, this can be channelled very positively. A study conducted at Weill Cornell Medical College found that when teens and adults both played a game where they got points for answering questions correctly, the teens actually spent a lot more time analysing the questions in order to get them right.
"Instead of acting impulsively, the teens are making sure they get it right," said BJ Casey of Cornell to the NPR.
This shows us that if our kids are exposed to the right influences from a young age, they could be more likely to look for situations that celebrate peer motivation over peer pressure and bullying, as teens.
Peer pressure to drink
If you’re living in a westernised country, I can almost guarantee that alcohol will be a topic of conversation when your kids start to reach puberty. But what does alcoholism really look like? And how does peer pressure to drink actually affect our teens?
Peer pressure in teens is often an issue most parents become apprehensive about when their kids turn 13 or 14 years old. At this stage, sex, drugs and alcohol start to rear their heads as our teens’ biological urges to explore, recognise and learn intensify. All of the hype is mostly lead by the fact that teenagers are just trying to better understand who they are as entities separate to the families who have raised them.
While the legal drinking age in each country may vary slightly. If your child is of age, then drinking infrequent and small amounts of alcohol in social settings is not inherently dangerous. It only becomes an issue when they:
Are pressured into drinking more than they want to,
Have a genetic predisposition to addiction, or
Start drinking alcohol socially before reaching legal age.
The reason as to why children shouldn’t down alcohol the same way that they down soda is because alcohol consumption at a young age is associated with various health issues that can affect their wellbeing in the long run. This includes impaired memory function, learning disabilities, shortened attention span, and mental health problems.
Peer pressure to drink predominantly becomes a problem when your teen is placed in a group dynamic where they are the only ones who do not want to participate in what the other teens are doing together. Some things that can spark this on include:
Doing rounds of shots together,
Playing drinking games, or
Hearing that dreaded phrase, “Just have one more, please.”
These situations often become a peer pressure and bullying concern as well. Especially since if your teen chooses to singlehandedly decline an offer to keep drinking, it is usually met with some form of judgement and rejection. Again, this is most difficult for teenagers to deal with given that they are most vulnerable to being dismissed by their friends.
Peer pressure with drugs
Peer pressure with drugs poses a different and far more harmful threat to our teens than alcohol does. Here’s what you need to know about the ways in which peer pressure among teens can become life threatening.
Peer pressure with drugs is a little different to alcohol. Mainly because it’s illegal, harmful, and potentially fatal to anyone who chooses to use it. This does depend on what is being used but at no age do drugs like cocaine, heroin, or MDMA become less dangerous to use, nor is there any ‘safe’ dose that you can use.
As we’ve established, all teens are impressionable and susceptible to change depending on the environments that they are placed in. This is especially due to the fact that the need to ‘fit in’ is more prevalent during this time than it ever will be again for the rest of our lives. A study done at Columbia University found that a child is six times more likely to drink alcohol if they associate with one friend who drinks. And this doesn’t stop at alcohol. If taking drugs makes your teen feel more accepted by their friends, then there’s a very good chance that they’ll try that too!
It doesn’t even take a peer pressure and bullying situation to trigger this. Peer pressure in itself can be enough.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), some of the other risk factors that can influence someone to develop a substance abuse problem include:
Early signs of aggressive behaviour,
Lack of parental supervision,
Any known substance usage,
How available drugs already are, and
Dealing with peer pressure and bullying
Peer pressure and bullying can come in many different forms. And there are various things to look out for - like drugs, alcohol, or just plain risky behaviour like unprotected sex and vandalism.
Peer pressure and bullying is something that needs to be approached just like any other bullying situation as it can unfold in so many different ways. The main things to look out for if you’re concerned that your teen may be influenced by peer pressure:
1. Direct peer pressure and bullying
This is exactly what it sounds like. I.e. when other children verbally and physically push another child to do something that they don’t want to do. Your teen needs to be aware that phrases like: “Come on, just try one line. It won’t hurt.” Or “Don’t be a baby – finish your shot,” are all forms of manipulation.
How to resolve it: Explain to your teen that the best thing to do in a social situation is to keep a non-alcoholic drink in your hand (no one else needs to know this!). Whenever someone tells you have another drink, they must just say that they have already got a drink and are happy.
2. Indirect peer pressure and bullying
This is when your teen is in a situation where nothing is vocalised. But their peers are implying what they expect your teen to do through gestures and actions. This usually includes some kind of judgemental looks and social exclusion to make your teen feel uncomfortable.
How to resolve it: If your teen is of driving age, suggest that they nominate themselves as the designated driver for the group that you are with. This usually helps. Alternatively, they can also bring one or two friends who also don’t drink to the party. This way, when they're met with peer pressure from others, they can turn down the offer as a group (which is much easier to do than when they are on their own).
3. Self-induced peer pressure
This can occur the minute that your teen is in a new and vulnerable situation. For example, if they've moved schools and need to make new friends. It’s much easier for them to throw themselves into a new social situation in order to feel accepted by another group during these transitional times.
How to resolve it: This is a tricky one to work on. But it is still possible as long as your teen puts high value on the core beliefs and ideologies you have taught them. Nonetheless, encourage them to try keep in touch with their friends from their old school, and see if there are any school clubs or associations that they would be interested in being a part of. This is a much better way to find like-minded individuals.
Peer pressure and bullying is something that most teenagers will face at some point in their adolescence. But having strong parental guidance and a safe space to develop character because they feel motivated and inspired will make all the difference when it’s time to interact with other children. It will help them make guided decisions when choosing their friends and forms of entertainment. And it will allow them to build their mental strength and resilience from an early age.