I vividly remember experiencing negative peer pressure around the age of 14. I had just entered high school and my group of friends began experimenting with alcohol. I was too nervous to drink, so those friends and I eventually parted ways.
Something similar happened a few years later when my new friends and I smoked a cigarette, guided by the elusive sense that it would be “cool”. None of us liked smoking so, thankfully, that habit didn’t stick.
Common thinking has been that peer pressure really takes off in the teen, or sometimes, tween years, but new research published in the journal Child Development has found that peer pressure affects children as early as age nine.
“Peer pressure exists in all ages. It’s not something that just miraculously starts in secondary school,” agrees Dr. Amori Makami, a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia. “Children can be influenced in terms of how much their friends care about school, even in younger age groups.” Similarly, “if friends are breaking a lot of rules or getting into physical fights, then that’s something that kids can also pick up from their friends.” But, we need to remember that being influenced by others, sometimes positively, sometimes negatively, is an entirely normal part of the developmental process, says Dr. Makami. Of course, this can work for better or worse – and usually there’s a little bit of both – for every child.
The Importance of Peers
It is critical that parents understand just how important peers are to growing children. “As you start to get into the eight- to 12-year-old age range, children will start describing other kids as their best friends. This prepares children for their teen years,” when peers become even more important, says Dr. Makami.
“Peer pressure is necessary for your child to learn about themselves. They need to learn to develop their own identity fully, and ultimately, to prepare for the adult world where romantic relationships are with peers, and work colleagues are peers. Family is important the whole time, but the importance of peers just grows and grows.”
Dealing with peer pressure, then, isn’t all bad: it can help children work through rough patches in friendships, learn about apologizing and encourages kids to speak up when their friends’ beliefs don’t match their own.
Parents don’t need to be afraid of peer pressure in and of itself, says Dr. Makami. Nonetheless, think about whether your child is experiencing the healthy or unhealthy type of peer pressure. Learning to manage the negative aspects, then, becomes a parent’s important work.
Beating the Pressure
Be proactive and give your child the tools to handle peer pressure. Judy Arnall, Calgary author of Discipline Without Distress, suggests these tips.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, February 2014.