Peer pressure is the feeling that one must do the same things as other people of one’s age and social group to be liked or respected by them. All of us are subjected to peer pressure in both positive and negative ways and in subtle and overt manners. The influence of our peer groups leads us to conform to social norms and ultimately helps us develop our sense of self and our place in society.
During the early adolescent through late teen years, children become more aware of a desire to fit in and find their niche in society. This makes them more susceptible to the positive and negative influences of peer pressure. But parents can play a powerful role in shaping these peer interactions.
Shaping your child’s peer interactions
Know their peer group: The most important and obvious step a parent can take is to help their child select the right group of peers. For better and for worse, your child will be influenced by the people they associate with. The Bible doesn’t use the term “peer pressure,” but it has quite a lot to say about the company we keep and avoiding negative influences:
“Walk with the wise and become wise, for a companion of fools suffers harm” (Prov. 13:20). “My son, if sinful men entice you, do not give in to them” (Prov. 1:10). “Do not be misled: ‘Bad company corrupts good character’” (1 Cor.15:33). We can’t completely control whom they will be exposed to, of course, but whenever possible, a parent should know their child’s peers. And as much as we can, we should choose whom they will spend their time with.
Intergenerational influences: One of the most unfortunate realities of the modern era is that children spend too much time with children. Outside of parents and teachers, most teens and children do not associate with older people daily. Unfortunately, this is often true even in our churches, which tend to be voluntarily segregated by age groups.
Intergenerational community is part of God’s vision for the church, which is why we—and our children—need friendships that cross generational lines. Having older “peers” in their life can dilute the effect of their own age cohorts and give teens a broader perspective on life. It is also helpful for older children and teens to have an adult in the church (and outside their family) they can turn to for guidance or to talk to about their struggles.
Peer problems for parents: While helping to select our child’s friends and associates is one of the most effective steps we can take for limiting negative peer groups, we should avoid three dangers:
1. The bad-company project. In our attempt to be caring and compassionate, we may put our children in relational danger. A prime example is when we encourage our child to befriend children whom the apostle Paul would deem to be “bad company.” We justify the relationship by telling ourselves that our child will be a positive and perhaps even godly influence on their wayward neighbor. But we Christian parents tend to overestimate our children’s moral influence and leadership abilities. Instead of being a role model, our children may be the ones who are enticed to sin.
If you encourage such friendships, try to encourage settings where other Christian adults or children are also present (such as youth group) and avoid private, one-on-one encounters.
2. The Eddie Haskell effect. The popular television sitcom Leave It to Beaver (1958 to 1965) featured a recurring character named Eddie Haskell, who “has become a cultural reference, recognized as an archetype for insincere sycophants.” When adults were around, Eddie was ingratiating and polite. But when adults were not in the room, Eddie would show his true character as a bullying, conniving jerk.
When you were a teenager, you probably knew people like Eddie. They were well-liked by parents only because parents didn’t know what horrible influences they were. How can we avoid falling for the new generation of Eddie Haskells? The easiest way is usually to spend plenty of time around our child’s peers. Teens who are two-faced often have trouble hiding their true natures for long. By being around your child’s friends in various settings and circumstances, you can often gain a better understanding of their character.
Another approach is to simply ask other children or teens what the suspected Eddie is really like. If their experience is markedly different from your own, it could be a red flag.
3. The online-only friend. You should know whom your children are associating with, which is why they should never have friends they only know from online interactions. This may seem like a harsh rule—and a difficult one to enforce—but the danger of negative peer influences rises exponentially online. If possible, set the rules for online engagement early in your child’s life so that when they are older, abstaining from online-only friendships will be the established norm.
Tips for training children
The five years prior to “no”: Peer pressure tends to be something parents address when a child reaches early or late adolescence. That’s when we begin telling them they should say no to various temptations to engage in sinful or inappropriate behavior. The problem is that this is usually the time when parental influence in on the wane and peer influence is on the rise.
Rather than waiting until they are under pressure, begin laying the groundwork about five years before they can be expected to deal with an issue. This may lead to some awkward conversations (such as talking to your 10-year-old girl about sex and drugs), but by planting the seed early, you can shape how they’ll respond later in life.
Clear signals: Your kids need you to send them clear signals about what types of behavior are inappropriate. This should be obvious, but it’s shocking how often Christian parents inadvertently encourage negative peer influences by undermining their own values. For example, some parents allow teens to drink alcohol at home, claiming, “I’d rather they drink under my roof, where I can watch them, than do it somewhere else.” The result is that these underage minors will drink alcohol at home—and anywhere else they can. This is the message they are getting from their parent: “There’s nothing wrong with underage drinking; just be safe about it.”
Instead, we should be clear and consistent in our disapproval. Sending clear signals is almost always more effective than trying to carve out exceptions. For example, a survey by Mothers Against Drunk Driving found that teens whose parents told them underage drinking is completely unacceptable are 80 percent less likely to drink, compared with those whose parents give their teens other messages about drinking.
Give them a plan: What will your child say if they are encouraged to engage in certain behaviors, such as taking drugs? The truth is, you probably don’t know. You may have given them vague suggestions or recommended the generic “just say no.” But unless you have talked to them in detail about how they’ll respond, you can’t really know what they’ll say when the time comes.
Consider role-playing common peer-pressure situations. Your teen will likely find such practice cheesy, annoying, and a bit embarrassing. But the practice will be beneficial, as they are likely to realize when they are faced with the real-life scenarios. They may not enjoy these conversations with Mom or Dad, but knowing they’re armed with the right words to say can be secretly comforting for them.
Be their backup: The risk of giving in to peer pressure can be compounded when the child has already engaged in forbidden behavior. For example, if they snuck out to go to a party and the person they rode with is pressuring them to drink, they may feel they have no other choice but to join in. Reduce that pressure by letting them know you are their means of escape. Make sure they know they can contact you whenever they are in an uncomfortable or dangerous situation and you'll always come get them. This doesn’t mean they shouldn’t suffer the consequences of their misbehavior, of course. But they should understand that the repercussions will be lighter than if they hadn’t come to you to save them from further danger or harm.
Focus on Jesus: Help your child truly understand that Jesus is not just watching what they do, but that, as a believer, they are united with Christ (2 Cor. 4:10). Remind them, as Paul says, “Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you?” (2 Cor. 13:5). And as John wrote, “Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did” (1 John 2:6). Because they are in Jesus, and Jesus is in them, they are accepted by one greater than any of their peers, and they are connected with one who has the power to overcome any pressure.
Note: This article is taken from Joe Carter’s new book, The Life and Faith Field Guide for Parents: Help Your Kids Learn Practical Life Skills, Develop Essential Faith Habits, and Embrace a Biblical Worldview.