Sometimes we think of peer pressure as something that only affects our kids. But it is a natural part of our makeup, and it affects us all.
I was at a Harley rally with one of our Heartlight parents not too long ago. Now, I’m in my 50s, and there were a lot of guys there even older than me. (Really.) I can tell you that I saw evidence of peer pressure there too, everywhere. People were conforming to the “biker look,” wearing things they wouldn’t have been caught dead wearing at home or work, because they wanted to fit in. I sat for awhile and just watched them go by, shaking my head in amazement.
But it wasn’t just “them.” I walked into one of the shops, lined in front with one Harley after another parked exactly the same, to buy a new helmet. I put it on and looked in the mirror. My first thought was, “That doesn’t look cool.” Then I realized how silly it is at my age to be worrying about looking cool. If I ever had a cool phase (I’m pretty sure I didn’t) it’s long behind me now. What was going on? I wanted to fit in with everyone else there. That’s a natural part of our makeup and character. So it should come as no surprise to us that peer pressure is such a powerful force in the lives of our teens.
Peer pressure—the desire to fit in with others—is a good thing. It is part of God’s design for us. At the very beginning He said, “It is not good for man to be alone.” We are meant to be in relationships and community with other people, and that’s made easier by everyone fitting in. There can even be a very positive side to peer pressure; it can motivate us to do better and be better people if we are with positive role models who are living right.
The problem is that much of the peer pressure our children face today can be negative. I hear from so many parents heartbroken because of the immoral or damaging things their teenagers’ friends have introduced them to. When the natural curiosity of a teen to experience new things combines with the desire to belong to a group that is doing negative things, it only gets more negative, like adding two negative numbers together.
At the very core and foundation of teen culture today is a lack of relationship. Kids are talking to each other (or at least texting) all the time, but they’re having an extremely difficult time engaging in a meaningful way. They simply don’t know how to develop deep, honest and meaningful relationships. That places a higher premium on shallow things, like their appearance and conformity to the norms of the crowd. What’s more, the “digital grapevine” leaves them in constant fear of being called out and picked on in the virtual realm for being “different.” I believe this makes peer pressure a much more powerful force in the lives of teenagers than it was when I was growing up.
Here’s another way things have changed. Back in the day, when our peers pressured us to do something wrong, they knew it was wrong and we knew it was wrong. That didn’t always keep us from doing it, but at least we had a sense of looking over our shoulders to keep from being found out while we did it. Today, peers are pressuring our teens to do things that are wrong, but they aren’t presented or thought of in that way. Instead they’re being asked to do things with the sense that those things are expected and accepted as “normal.” That’s a huge difference, and it makes peer pressure so much harder to resist.
Because we remember what it was like when we were young, we may tend to think that our children are choosing to do wrong for the sake of doing wrong, not understanding the impact of these expectations on their lives. It’s probably a mistake to automatically assume they are rebelling against you or your family’s beliefs and values. Often they are not viewing things through a moral lens at all, but rather through the lens of wanting to fit in in their world. Let me illustrate this principle with the example of music.
A parent may say, “You need to stop listening to that bad music.” I remember the fights over what music was acceptable in our home when I was a teen. Those fights still go on in homes today, but it is different now. Rather than just a “generation gap” thing over what “good” music is, teenagers today can feel that it is a direct attack on their sense of belonging. Their shared musical experience allows them to fit in with their group, and if it is threatened or taken away, they will respond in defensiveness out of fear of losing their connectedness. They’ll actually feel as if it as an attack on them personally, not just their musical tastes.
It’s really helpful to understand the reason behind the response you may get from your teen when it comes to music, how they look, or some other issue. They are not thinking about the values and principles you hold dear; they are simply worried about not fitting in anymore with their friends. They’re protecting themselves from being on the receiving end of jokes and ridicule from their peers. So I encourage you to understand the nature of the battle that’s being fought.
It may well be a cut and dried case that what they are doing is morally wrong. And I’m not saying your effort to put a stop to it is wasted, or that you should accept whatever will help them fit in. I’m saying that to be truly effective in helping your teen walk the right path, you need to establish a relationship (because that’s what they are desperately looking for). Your relationship will fill the void that is driving them to seek acceptance elsewhere. Through that relationship you’ll be able to share in a more meaningful way why those things their peers are doing or promoting are wrong. After all, unlike younger kids, teenagers are beginning to reason, so they need to know the “why’s” not just the “thou shalt not’s.”
There are at least five things you can offer your child that no peer can match. Let me share these with you, and encourage you to begin making these vital connections using your unique resources as a parent.
- Unconditional Acceptance – no friend can provide the depth of unconditional acceptance a parent can
- Value – only you can affirm that they have innate value, no matter what they do or how they look
- Wisdom – your teen will learn to value your wisdom if it is shared in discussions, not in lecturing
- Experience – you’ve been through many of the same things they are facing and can help them get through it
- Time – you have more time with them, and time is the crucial ingredient in building relationships that matter
Research shows the presence of a strong family relationship is one of the most important elements that builds resiliency—the ability to resist negative peer pressure—in teens. You can’t change a teenager by controlling them. You can only affect lasting change by touching their heart. So, spend time together. Talk to your children. Even more importantly, listen to them.
Peer pressure doesn’t justify bad behavior. But by understanding the enormous influence it has on our teens, we can try to understand and prepare them ahead of time to resist those bad influences. Whether your child is four or fourteen it is never too late to start building a strong relationship that will help them do right even if their friends don’t.
We talked about this issue in-depth on our radio program last weekend titled “Peer Pressure.” To listen online look for the program dated April 30, 2011 at http://www.parentingtodaysteens.org.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a therapeutic boarding school located in East Texas. Call 903-668-2173. Visit http://www.heartlightministries.org, or to read other articles by Mark, visit http://www.markgregston.com.