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How peer pressure can help your child

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.

  • Build your child’s self-esteem by decreasing the susceptibility to negative peer pressure. For example, “when a child says ‘no’ to you – if they have a good reason – accept the ‘no’. Kids practise standing up to people in the home.”
  • Role-play ways to say ‘no’ with your child so they have dialogue ready when confronted with something they don’t want to do. For instance, ‘Nah, let’s do something else that’s more fun,’ or ‘No my parents would ground me for a month if I did that!’ Your child will then be more comfortable saying the words with his or her peers.
  • Allow your kids to see you stand up to your own peers. “I had an uncle who wanted to drive all of us cousins and kids in a van with not enough seatbelts,” says Judy. “I said ‘no, I’m not comfortable with that,’ loud and clear in front of all of the kids. Nobody was happy because we had to make three trips, but it sent a powerful message to the kids that you can say ‘no’ and expect acceptance.”
  • Keep your finger on the pulse of your kids’ peer groups. Make your house the one that the kids want to hang out at. Get to know other parents by spending extra time at the door before drop-offs. Join the parent council. Become the carpool driver. In all of these cases, you get to know who’s doing what and who’s hanging around with whom. You’re involved and the kids know you’re involved, too. 
  • Help your kids have different spheres of peers. You want to have healthy groups available for your child to socialize with. Sports teams, after-school clubs, or church groups are all good alternative peer groups.


Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, February 2014.

a man carrying two children

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