Influencing Peer Influence – Teens

photo_1882_20060814 There is a not so new name for peer pressure in the field – “contagion”. You should pay attention to it because the research says so. Some parents struggle with whether they should set boundaries on who their teens hang out with.  Others struggle with how they would ever go about monitoring this area of their teens life and enforcing consequences when lines are crossed.

Before we get into all that let’s talk about whether peer influence is really that big of a deal.

Much of the research that’s been done on peer influence points to there being a relationship between peer influence and suicidality, self-harm, depression and drug use.  Your teen may feel that he is different and the standard response I often hear from teens in treatment is “my friends don’t make me do it, I made the choice.”

This is sort of true.

Peers are probably not directly encouraging members of their peer group to engage in the behaviors but they certainly provide a significant reference point .

Peer pressure does not look like “hey man, everyone else is doing it…don’t be such a loser”.

It looks more like-

“Every time I hang out with my friends they smoke weed.   They don’t push me to do it.  I like it.  If I’m around it, I can’t not use. Not using means giving up my friends and I’m not willing to do that.”

Group interventions with teens who consistently engage in self harm or are in the early phases of substance abuse treatment de-emphasize processing harmful behaviors and focus more on teaching skills they could use to deal with the distress differently. The reason for this is that the discussion about the behavior can be triggering and can also lead to glorification of the behavior or “war stories”.  It is not unheard of for teens to show off their scars or go into detail about the behaviors as a way of establishing credibility.

This shouldn’t really be surprising, there’s a reason why the teen clique stereotype exists.  Teens tend to be demonstrable with their identity and look to others who share the culture surrounding the identity for guidance on how to be.

Having a say in who your teen hangs out with is a no-brainer in my opinion but it is one part of an overall approach to preventing or solving the problem.

One step in influencing your teens peer group is to be up front about the fact that this is exactly what you intend to do. Letting them know that  who they hang out with is your business avoids the bigger problem of having to adjust expectations around this area if they become problematic.

Should you go old school and insist on meeting friends and their parents?

Hell yes.

I know…it sounds so much better when Beck says it.

This doesn’t mean setting up play dates or rejecting every kid that isn’t Harvard material.  Stepping in should probably occur if you feel the relationship has reasonable potential to adversely affect your teen’s emotional well being and behaviors.

It appears that kids who feel connected to their families tend to be less influenced by negative peer influence and stay away from subcultures that glorify and engage in harmful behaviors.  So another strategy involves setting up rituals within the family that allows members to spend time with each other and pushes members to interact. Having one meal together each day and spending a day during the weekend engaged in an activity as a family can establish a greater emotional proximity among family members and can increase the feeling of accountability members have to the family.

Another great antidote to negative peer influence is positive peer influence. I think parents can help their teen by requiring them to participate in something outside of school that is structured, positive and holds them accountable.  Giving a teen a choice between something like youth group, volunteering, a sport or an extra-curicular club can help them feel in control of what they do while creating greater potential for more positive peer influence.

If you notice your teen struggling emotionally or behaviorally, stay engaged. If things don’t change after a while connect them with a professional or positive informal support that can help. Many times teens turn to maladaptive behaviors because they don’t know how to handle their issue, feel that their issue limits who they can hang out with and/or they believe they can only feel better by engaging in a maladaptive behavior.  By providing solutions early on you may be able to establish healthier coping skills before they make a decision that could lead to some bad patterns.

Lastly, if all else fails cut off the subsidy. That x-box you paid for or the cash you shell out for your teen to grab a movie are luxuries.  Your teen may feel that he doesn’t have to listen to you when it comes to who he spends time with.  That’s fair.  There are a bunch of things you don’t have to do either.  You don’t have to be vindictive in explaining this, in fact it’s better if you aren’t. Helping your teen understand the reciprocal nature of relationships isn’t a bad lesson for her to learn.

I will end by saying that peer influence is one factor of many that connects to undesirable behaviors in teens; there are other factors related to family life, history and pre-existing conditions that also appear to play a role.  So while you certainly have a right to give voice to concerns regarding peers, a measured and comprehensive approach to the problem that includes creating opportunities and alternatives rather than just cutting your teen off may lead to better outcomes.

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