The Power of Peers
From the time children are toddlers participating in play groups, parents wonder and worry about what seems to be an ever powerful and permeating force in our children's lives-the influence of their peers.
We anguish over it when our children say their first bad word. We blame it for our adolescents' moodiness, or for their taste in music or clothing (when it is different from our own). We particularly focus on it at the beginning of the school year when our children are entering new grades, new schools, new clubs, sports teams, and myriad other situations in which they will meet new friends who can and will influence them.
Every parent remembers what it's like to be young and influenced by friends. Probably some parental concern about peer pressure stems from memories of their own adolescent desires to dress to fit in and be accepted by the cool crowd at school.
Most children freely acknowledge the reality of peer pressure in their lives. The majority of adolescents who participated in IYD focus groups recognized the power of peers in their lives.
"Friends do help you, but sometimes they want you to do things you wouldn't do if you were by yourself. Or sometimes you feel pressured to do something because everyone is doing it and you want to be cool, too." (boy)
"Kids make fun of you when you're different, like you're not cool or you don't wear the right kinds of clothes." (girl)
"Your friends' attitudes influence you. If they're all in a bad mood or something, you get that way, too." (boy)
Certainly peer influence is one of the realities in children's lives that seems largely outside of parental control. We sometimes tend to view it as an invisible, diabolical specter that is constantly and actively plotting our children's demise.
But while peer influence is complex and multi-faceted, some recent research findings should help parents both better understand it and find ways to positively impact its role in our children's lives.
The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (known as Add Health), surveyed more than 90,000 adolescents on many health-related issues. An analysis of data evaluating peer influence (specifically related to teen pregnancy) was recently released with some interesting and encouraging points for parents:
Much of peer influence is positive. On average, a girl's risk of pregnancy decreases by one percent for every one percent more low-risk than high-risk friends she has. In fact, a couple of high-risk female friends in a girl's crowd are not that dangerous, meaning, in this context, that such friends do not necessarily hasten first intercourse or increase the risk of pregnancy.
Peer pressure is only one way that peers influence each other. Peers model behavior for each other, structure opportunities in which adolescents can engage in these behaviors, and set norms that, during this stage in life, young people are particularly inclined to follow. All four types of influence (peer pressure, modeling, structuring opportunities, and setting and enforcing group norms) occur simultaneously in the daily lives of teens, delivering both complementary and conflicting messages.
Reprinted with the permission of the Institute for Youth Development. © 2005 Institute for Youth Development.
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