Dealing with Peer Pressure in School Advice & Resources to Overcome Peer Pressure While Pursuing an Education

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Jill Whitney Read bio

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Shannon Lee Read bio

Everyone knows the old saying, “If all your friends were going to jump off a bridge, would you jump too?” It usually invokes an eye roll, but the fundamental issue is one that almost everyone faces at some time: how to deal with peer pressure. Young people especially may struggle to cope with varying forms and degrees of peer pressure—whether it’s keeping up with middle school fashion trends or being subjected to hazing in a fraternity house. Peer pressure can be a powerful force, but fortunately, increased awareness has led to numerous resources to help students, parents and educators manage it effectively. Learn more about how peer pressure is manifested—and how to face it.

Myth vs. Reality: Student Peer Pressure

What’s true? What isn’t? Societal issues often engender different opinions, but it’s important to have a good grasp on the facts in order to best understand a problem. Here, we highlight some of the myths students might have heard about peer pressure, and provide a reality check to put it into perspective.

Reality:

Peer pressure can be good if it pushes a person out of their comfort zone and gives them an opportunity to discover new things.

Reality:

Succumbing to peer pressure often leaves people with the feeling that they’ve betrayed their own beliefs or desires in order to conform to what others want.

Reality:

While some behaviors may be influenced by peer pressure, it’s never an excuse to behave badly or shirk responsibility.

Reality:

Most people want to fit in from a very young age, leaving them open to peer pressure. It may seem more intense during the teen years because individuals are more aware of the impact their choices have.

Reality:

Although many people may experience bullying in their lifetime, it isn’t something that should be accepted as a fact of life.

Reality:

Although it is important for young people to learn to speak for themselves, adults must guide them in understanding how to recognize positive pressures, and how to avoid negative ones. They also have a responsibility to intervene when necessary.

Reality:

Many people successfully resist peer pressure, strengthening their sense of self and their ability to thrive in a variety of social settings. They may keep their friendships intact, or find a new group of like-minded friends.

Reality:

Peer pressure may come from other people too, such as parents or teachers. Although they are not technically a student’s peers, they may reinforce the attitudes that result in the pressure. Media is also responsible for a great deal of peer pressure.

Reality:

While it is not always realistic to stop peer pressure, there are many things a person can do to make sure it doesn’t negatively affect their lives.

Reality:

Peer pressure can affect any aspect of someone’s life, including their education. People may be directly teased for being smart or earning good grades, leading to less effort or pride in their schoolwork; peer pressure in other areas may also spill over and influence educational performance.

Five Common Social Pressures Among Students

Peer pressure tends to grow in intensity as students move up through the grades; by the time they reach high school, fitting in has become a priority – and often a source of anxiety—to many. While peer pressure can be manifested in any number of ways, it’s typically focused in a few common areas:

  1. Drugs and alcohol

    Drugs and alcohol are easy to find on both college and high school campuses, and teens might feel the pressure to be “cool” by experimenting with something exotic and daring. When teens were surveyed about drug use, 55% said they started using drugs after being pressured by their friends. But giving in to peer pressure to consume drugs and alcohol can quickly land a person far in over their head, leading to even worse decisions.

  2. Stealing

    Maybe it happens on a dare—a challenge to “Do this, or you’re not one of us.” Stealing can have an immediate impact, including strong feelings of remorse once the rush of adrenaline wears off. Over time, guilt, worries about getting caught, and concerns about the possible damage to their reputation are some of the negative thoughts a person may experience after stealing.

  3. Sexual activity

    Seeing friends hooking up can make it seem as though sex is what everyone does—a common activity that’s not a big deal. That perception can easily lead a person to tamp down their misgivings or hesitation and go further than they wanted to with a sexual partner. This pressure often begins in high school or even earlier; studies have shown that 33 percent of teenage boys felt pressured to have sex, while 23 percent of girls in the same age group felt the same way. It can be tough to put on the brakes in the heat of the moment, but in addition to making a person feel uneasy about crossing their personal boundaries, having sex under pressure often means having sex without thinking it through or planning for it. That can lead to serious consequences, such as sexually transmitted infections or pregnancy.

    One of the most important areas where peer pressure leads to regret is sex. It may seem like everyone is hooking up, but statistics show that many fewer young adults have hookup sex than you might think.

    Jill Whitney

  4. Bullying

    Most people likely do not think of themselves as bullies. But the “playground persecutor” is just one version of a bully, and bullying behavior can be developed in small doses. If a group of friends begins to bully someone else, cheering each other on, it can lead to a conundrum for the student who recognizes what’s happening. If they stand aside and resist taking part, they may be treated as an outcast. But if they do join in, they will face the negative feelings accompanied by becoming a bully themselves.

  5. Dangerous behavior

    When hanging out with a group of friends who are doing crazy things, standing firm against it – or even walking away – can be difficult. It’s also easy to justify some behaviors as “not that bad,” especially if they don’t seem all that risky on the surface. Walking along railroad tracks allows plenty of time to hear the train coming, right? Car surfing is okay as long as nobody goes too fast, right? Unfortunately, the facts don’t support the rationalizations: risky behaviors lead to death every day, especially among young people.

    One way to know whether something is right for you is how you feel while you’re doing it—or afterward. If you regret having done something, don’t do it again, even if your friends do.

    Jill Whitney

Understanding and Identifying Peer Pressure

Knowledge is power; understanding anything makes it much easier to deal with. The same holds true with peer pressure. Knowing what it is, grasping why it happens, and learning how to spot it can empower students to better handle it.

Peer pressure is akin to the idea of conformity. It occurs when an individual feels as though they need to do the same things as people their own age or in their social group to be liked or accepted.

To gain that affinity and respect, some individuals will do things they don’t feel they should or things that they might not feel ready for, in order to fit in and be like those around them. This plays out in a variety of situations, from bullying on the school playground to drinking too much in college. The negative peer pressures can make a person feel bad about the things they are doing, even as they continue doing them as a way to feel connected to their peers.

What your friends are and aren’t doing is their choice; what you do is yours.

Jill Whitney

It’s no secret peer pressure can result in feelings of regret or guilt, or other, more tangible consequences. Yet it remains a powerful force among youth. Why? Peer pressure feeds on the things that frighten us. We’re all social creatures; we want to fit in, have friends, avoid loneliness and gain approval from others. The fear of not having those things is enough to propel some people to extreme or inappropriate responses.

Students often give in to peer pressure because they don’t want to be rejected by friends. Youth are also much less likely to be sure of themselves or what they want, making them more susceptible to peer pressure that pushes them to test boundaries. And, since students face many new situations in high school and college, they might find themselves in a position of not having the knowledge or tools to extricate themselves from a bad spot.

Peer pressure is not unique to any group of people, nor is anyone immune. It starts at a very young age—imagine a toddler being singled out for not sharing their favorite toy—and continues to evolve into more complex manifestations. It may be the goading to have “just one puff” of a cigarette in high school, or the college student who has a drink thrust into their hand at a fraternity party. It also affects adults, who may feel that they have to attend a monthly lunch date to please their friends or earn more money to compare favorably with their neighbors.

Those who believe they don’t experience peer pressure likely don’t see the bigger picture around them. Peer pressure can be entirely silent yet still overt, such as the billboard that makes it clear a good life includes a new car or the magazine ad that suggests a model-like physical appearance starts with a particular brand of moisturizer. The media is expert at recognizing people’s desire to fit in, and exploiting that desire for financial gain. While it’s difficult to resist peer pressure, a key step is recognizing what types of peer pressure are being used.

Types of Peer Pressure

This is the most visible and easily understood form of peer pressure, as well as one of the strongest, since it immediately pulls others into a situation.

You’ve had a drink or two at a party, and you know you’ve reached your limit. But a handsome guy keeps pushing drinks your way because “the night is still young!” When you insist you don’t want any more, he announces to the crowd that he’s found the “nun” and to make sure you only get water from now on.

You really need to go to class to keep up with the work, but your roommate has other plans. He pushes you to skip so you can be his opponent in his new video game. It’s tempting, but when you turn him down, his fun attitude turns hostile. “You’re always a party pooper,” he says. “Go ahead and go to class, loser.”

Peer pressure can also happen without a word being spoken; the power of a look or gesture can be sufficient to coerce someone into doing what makes them uncomfortable.

You’re debating between going to a concert or staying home to study for an important exam. As your friends listen to you talk about the dilemma, they’re opening up their books and setting up their laptops. Watching them prepare to study, you realize where you need to put your own priorities, and choose to focus on studying.

You don’t like the idea of going out clubbing, but all your friends are on board. When one asks if you’re coming, you hesitate for a moment. In return, your friend shrugs their shoulders, as if they don’t really care one way or the other. That makes you feel as though your hesitation was wrong, and you will be judged if you don’t go.

This peer pressure is actually a beneficial influence that opens up new horizons, or reinforces the decision to stay away from bad behavior.

At a restaurant, you try to stick to your usual cheeseburger and fries, even as your friends are ordering more exotic dishes. They cajole you to try “just a bite” of something you would never order – something you can’t imagine eating. But you eventually give in and taste it, only to discover that you love it. Their demand that you try something new has just broadened your palate.

You’re in the car with a friend when her cell phone beeps. When she ignores the incoming text, you ask, “Aren’t you going to look at that?” She replies, “Not while I’m driving.” You’ve probably seen the ad campaigns against texting while driving, but seeing a friend take them to heart drives home the message for you. As a result, you leave your cell phone alone until you’ve stopped.

Sometimes, positive behavior isn’t achieved solely through positive peer pressure; it’s a result of sacrificing something else. For example:

  • You’re getting excellent grades, thanks to joining numerous study groups that meet almost every night. The problem is that even though your grades are top-notch, your health is suffering. You’re not sleeping enough, existing on caffeine and sheer will, and a crash is imminent.

  • You never had much of a social life in high school, but now that college is here, you’ve blossomed into a social butterfly. But you’ve neglected to impose a balance on your new activities, and now you’re cutting class to spend time with new friends. Your grades are suffering and you have no idea how you will pass finals.

Peer pressure that encourages a person to do harmful or dangerous things is obviously negative. But sometimes negative peer pressure takes a more subtle form, such as encouraging a student to do something that detracts from their studies.

You’ve just pledged to the most popular fraternity on campus. To be accepted, you’re expected to do a variety of things, all escalating in intensity. During one event you’ve already drunk more than you feel you should, but that’s not enough – you are pushed to drink even more in order to “prove your manhood.”

Your friends are going out to a concert, and they want you to go along. They talk about how great the seats will be and how you should be grateful to have such an opportunity. But you’ve got a big test coming up the next morning, and you know you won’t be back until the wee hours – leaving you with no time to study. Your friends roll their eyes. “Just skip the test,” they say. “College is about having fun!”

Spotting the Difference:
Positive vs. Negative Peer Pressure in School

Peer pressure can be both bad and good; the problem is that it’s not always all one way or all the other, and it can be difficult for students to sort through messages that may seem to have conflicting outcomes.

Positive peer pressure can make a person do things that are ultimately very good for them. For example, according to the Teen Driver Source, 19 percent of teens said they would stop using a cell phone while driving if their friends did the same. Here are a few questions that can make it clear if a person is facing positive peer pressure.

  • Is this going to lead to healthy habits?

    Positive peer pressure can lead someone to do things that are good for them, such as exercise, eat healthy food, or avoid smoking. When these healthy things become a habit, it can often be traced back to instances of positive peer pressure.

  • Does this lead to good outcomes for others?

    When someone agrees to meet a friend at the gym every morning for exercise, that makes both of them accountable – and healthier in the long run. When a friend insists on taking the keys so nobody drinks and drives, everyone stays safe. Anything pressure that leads to good outcomes for others is a positive thing.

  • Does this make me feel good inside?

    Being pushed to do something by well-meaning friends should make a person feel good about their decisions, whether it’s choosing to study more often or help someone in need.

We tend talk about peer pressure as if it’s all bad, but it isn’t. We humans are social creatures; we’re wired to want to connect with and fit in with other people.

Jill Whitney

Doing the same things their friends do is one way young people try to fit in. Smoking is a prime example; the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found teenagers with three or four friends who smoke are 10 times more likely to smoke than a teenager who has no friends who smoke. When in doubt about whether you’re dealing with negative peer pressure, ask these questions:

  • Am I hesitant to do this?

    It’s important to listen to instinct. If something feels wrong, for whatever reason, it probably is. Hesitation is the result of the subconscious throwing up a red flag and saying, “Beware! Think this through!”

  • Does this make me feel bad about myself?

    Pressure from well-meaning friends should result in positive feelings. If, instead, a person experiences shame, doubt, or guilt; worries about consequences; or takes a hit to their self-esteem, it’s almost always coming from negative peer pressure.

  • Is this something I would prefer to hide?

    Is this something you’d feel comfortable discussing with friends and family? If you instinctively want to hide your action or behavior, it’s a negative.

Tips for Parents: Peer Pressure and Encouraging Your Student

Caring parents want to ensure their child is happy, healthy and confident. But astute parents know that a family’s support is also competing with the power of peer pressure, and they know they need to find ways to help young people avoid the pitfalls that can result from intense peer pressure. Here are some valuable things parents can do to help their kids in the face of peer pressure.

  • Talk to your student

    Talk to them as though they are a friend. By treating them as someone who is responsible and capable, you will help them to believe they are. Ask them to open up about what they worry about. Start by telling them what you worry about, as well as your options for handling it and how you chose the path you took. Though young people might not say it that often, they really do want to know about the challenges their parents face and how they handled those challenges.

  • Make a plan

    Many kids give in to peer pressure because they don’t see a graceful way out. Help them find one by creating a plan that will get them out of a bad situation with little consequence. One of the best options is for your child to text the letter “X” to you. As soon as you get that text, you call to say something has happened at home and you have to come pick them up. This allows them to get out without facing a difficult situation. This is a great place to begin. As your child gets older, work with them to find ways to gradually take more responsibility.

  • Apply your own positive pressure

    Their actions may seem to signal constant rebellion, but in fact, it’s natural for kids to want to please their parents. Parents should remember they have a strong influence over their child, even when it appears they’re ignoring you. Applying positive pressure, such as encouraging your student to study more or take a tougher class, can result in them actually doing it.

  • Give them the information they need

    Never assume a young person knows everything they need to about risky behaviors, such as drugs, alcohol or unprotected sex. Rather, make sure they are well-informed by talking to them about it. They might not like the conversation, but giving them the knowledge they need to make good decisions far outweighs a few minutes of discomfort.

  • Set age-appropriate limits

    Kids need to have a safety net, even when they are old enough to make many decisions for themselves. When they begin dating and going out with friends, set a firm curfew; when they are older, adopt the “my house, my rules” attitude, and make it clear you have expectations for them even after they go to college. Knowing mom and dad are waiting up for the “I’m safe” phone call encourages kids to think twice about their actions.

  • Show confidence in your kids’ capabilities

    Keeping in mind the limits of their age, give your children room to make their own decisions. By treating them in ways that telegraph you believe they can choose wisely and take responsibility for those choices, it will boost their own confidence.

  • Share your own path

    Ask your kids to open up about the things that worry them. Start by sharing your own personal struggles, the options you had for handling them, and how you chose the path you took. Though young people might not realize it, they learn by example—and parents are typically their first role models.

Peer Pressure in College

College brings a new environment, novel situations, and different expectations—and with those comes a new wave of peer pressure, sometimes in forms students are unaccustomed to dealing with. Whereas students in high school likely had strategies and support groups to help them make smart choices, college students may feel isolated and on their own for the first time, making them even more vulnerable to peer pressure.

The Realities of Student Peer Pressure in College

Going to college is a profound change, and even the most prepared, well-adjusted students are likely to face a few hurdles as they adjust. As students set new priorities or adopt different lifestyles, it opens them up to pressures that they may have resisted in the past. Here we take a look at some issues to get an idea of what students face in college.

  • Drinking is common in college, but how much a person drinks often depends on the company they keep. When social drinking is reinforced by valued friends, a student may find it difficult to refuse alcohol; conversely, if their peers disapprove or alcohol use or do not drink at all, a student is more likely to drink only on occasion or abstain entirely.

  • If college students believe their peers approve of smoking, they are more likely to engage in smoking tobacco or using smokeless tobacco products. In fact, the perceived approval of peers is the strongest predictor of tobacco use among college students.

  • The way a student perceives their friends’ sexual activity and attitudes toward sex has a strong influence on how they view their own sexual choices. Those who partake of the ‘hookup’ culture in college often do so upon the advice or expectation of their peers.

(National Center for Biotechnology Information, Smoking Behavior Among College Students: A Survey, The Journal of Sex Research)

What is my gut telling me? If your instincts are saying ‘this is not right for me,’ try to find the courage to opt out.

Jill Whitney

Expert Interview: How Peer Pressure Can Be Different for College Students

Jill Whitney is a licensed marriage and family therapist and the author of a forthcoming book about talking with kids about sexuality and sexual decision-making. She leads workshops for parents and young people on exploring one’s sexual values and communicating about sexuality. Whitney is a columnist for The Day, a newspaper in New London, Conn., and writes about relationships and sexuality at KeepTheTalkGoing.com.

What are some good approaches for college students to relieve the pressure to do things they don’t want to?

The first few weeks on campus can be challenging. Of course, you want to make new friends, and that may make you go along with things you wouldn’t otherwise. But remember that all the new students are trying to make friends. There are lots of people looking for connections, and some of them will be good fits for you. Don’t necessarily go with the first people you meet, especially if they seem pushy or want to do things that don’t seem right to you. Look for people with whom you share interests, like exercise, music, or student leadership–anything where you have more in common than drinking.

It helps to decide your limits ahead of time, even before you get to campus. What do you want to do while you’re in college? What do you want to avoid? How much are you willing to risk to hang out with a “cool” crowd? What kinds of people do you most want to be friends with? Some of your buddies freshman year will be friends your whole life; look for good ones.

When a college student does fall victim to negative peer pressure, how can they learn from the experience?

Everyone makes mistakes; stupid people keep making the same mistakes. If you do cave to peer pressure, think about what were, or could have been, the consequences. What things happened (maybe incrementally) that nudged you past your boundaries? Who were you trying to impress? What did you learn about who’s trustworthy and who pushes people? Next time you’re in a similar situation, what can you do differently?

K-12 and College: How to Avoid and Resist Negative Peer Pressure

Standing up for yourself can be daunting, especially in the face of a group that is pressuring you to do something. Here are some tactics that can work for anyone at any age.

  • Spend time with those who resist peer pressure

    You’ll learn who they are quickly; they’re the ones who stand up for themselves even in the face of bullying. These are the people you want in your corner.

  • Learn how to be assertive

    Learn to say “No” in a way that’s calm and convincing.

  • Ask for help if necessary

    If you’re faced with relentless bullying, don’t simply wait for it to go away. Reach out to a teacher, mentor, parent or counselor to get some help with the problem.

  • Get out of the situation

    When a situation begins to turn bad—such as a group of people doing risky things—bow out of the situation as soon as you can. Have an excuse ready that you can use if you need to.

  • Choose friends carefully

    Remember, a true friend won’t push you to do something that makes you uncomfortable. And when it comes to resisting negative pressures, it helps to have a buddy. Agree that you’ll have each other’s backs on certain things, such as not drinking too much.

  • Use the delay tactic

    Rather than answer immediately, say you’re going to think something over first. That time buffer makes your eventual “no” less of a surprise.

  • Think ahead

    If you know there will be drugs or alcohol at a party, decide in advance how you will handle it, or make other plans.

  • Provide your own positive pressure

    Rather than simply fighting against negative pressure, focus on providing a positive alternative. For instance, counter a fraternity party invitation with a proposal to go see a movie instead.

  • It’s okay to be alone

    Sometimes we give into peer pressure to avoid feeling lonely. But spending time with yourself is a way to rejuvenate and reinforce your own priorities.

  • Go with your gut

    If something doesn’t feel right for you, then it’s not. Period.