As a volunteer who works with teens, teenage peer pressure is one of the biggest issues I deal with. Our culture likes to portray peer pressure among teenagers through this sensationalist, after school special perspective. Parents worry about teenage drug use, teenage pregnancy, and other sorts of really drastic issues. But in reality, peer pressure situations are often about much subtler and more insidious issues.
Don’t get me wrong, I do see some examples of pressure that lead to drug use, skipping classes, pregnancy and other stereotypical teenage problems, but the biggest thing that I run into is bullying. Teenagers are under a tremendous amount of pressure to fit in, and often the people who run the cliques they are trying to fit into are not the nicest teenagers.
In order to “earn” their popularity, teenagers are often expected to haze younger teens, pick on or exclude socially awkward kids or even mistreat teens who are from poorer families just because of their backgrounds. To me, this is the most pernicious and destructive form of teenage peer pressure. During high school, teenagers learn who they will be, and those teenagers who learn to think of themselves as outcasts or to believe that they have to pick on weaker people just to fit in may carry those lessons with them for their whole lives.
Unfortunately, there are no easy cures for teenage peer pressure. Teenagers need to assert their autonomy, and often don’t do well with heavy-handed parent or authority figure trying to pick their friends or manage everything they do. At the same time, teens need guidance and those with parents who are too lenient get into trouble. The only thing to do is be a good parent and be a good friend; set boundaries for your teenager, but give him or her freedom and make it clear that your teen is always welcome to talk to you without consequences. That way, if he feels pressured to do something that he knows is wrong, he will be able to get the support that he needs from you without fear of being punished or judged.
Of course, when you do see teenage peer pressure leading to bad places, as a parent, counselor or other adult authority figure you have to step in and do something about it. Teenagers can and do make really bad decisions, and the consequences of those decisions can last a lifetime if no one steps in. Be a friend when you can, but be a parent when you must.