As mask ordinances lift in schools, parents may be wondering if their kids, and teens in particular, will make the decision that’s right for them, or if they’ll be swayed one way because “everyone else is doing it?”
This concern gives voice to the longstanding issue of helping adolescents navigate peer pressure. To better understand how parents and educators can help teens navigate these social forces, Harvard Graduate School of Education professor and developmental psychologist Nancy Hill explains what peer pressure is and offers some strategies to help.
What is peer pressure?
There’s a tendency to think of peer pressure as an external force — an explicit statement that in order to belong to a group you must behave or act in a certain way. But Hill notes that it can also be an internal force, spurred by a desire to belong. “It stems from an adolescent’s desire to fit in,” says Hill. “And this desire to fit in might motivate the student to do something they might not do on their own, even if no one is asking them to do that thing.”
Teens tend to be more susceptible to this pressure because it’s a time in their life where they worry more about what others think of them. Unlike younger children, “they’re able to imagine, at an abstract level, how other are thinking about and seeing them and then wanting to manipulate their own behavior so others see them in a certain way,” says Hill.
Additionally, the heightened emotions that accompany adolescence make it harder to reason through a decision in the heat of the moment.
To help, teachers can…
- Continue conversations about friendships. While a large part of the curriculum in elementary school, explicit discussions about friends and how to maintain friendships are rarer in older grades. Yet friendships in adolescence are even more crucial and can often be more emotional and intimate. Ask students what they look for in a friend and make sure they understand the distinction between nurturing a mutual friendship and being part of a clique or being popular.
- Be on the lookout for kids who are trying to hide. There may be a group of students who just want to hide because of their own insecurities, anxieties, or stress around navigating the peer context. And, with the return to in-person learning and the removal of mask mandates, these feelings may become exacerbated. While some students may choose to continue to wear masks for health reasons, others may be using it to hide. The mask can give students a way to hide and disengage from the social aspects of school. “Teachers who make a point to know students will be able to determine who the reticent kids are and make sure they feel more self-assured,” says Hill.
- Practice navigating social situations with your teens. “The kind of social pressures that come with adolescence makes it hard to regulate emotion, and they just don’t have practice compartmentalizing these decisions in the moment,” says Hill. Provide those opportunities beforehand. Discuss what feels like the right decision to them. Practice scenarios where that feeling might be tested and help them think through a response that feels natural to them.
- Help them find a partner to stand with them. While it might sound like just being able to say “no” to something that doesn’t feel right should be easy enough, the truth is that saying no can feel like it has a high social cost attached to it. Sometimes, making sure your teen has a friend or two who feels similarly and can stand alongside them in their decision can take some of that social pressure off.
Remember, peer pressure can also be a positive force.
Research has shown that peer pressure can be a force for good, especially when teens want to hang out with peers who have positive goals and values. This is also apparent at a school-based level. Students who attend high schools where a large percentage of students go to college are more likely to attend as well. Students with similar GPAs and academic backgrounds at a school where most kids don’t go to college are less likely to attend. “Kids are always going to do and want to do things to fit in with their peers,” says Hill. “The question is, what are they fitting in to and does it benefit them or derail them?”