Answering the Peer Pressure Riddle

Now, we return to answering those questions from the earlier blog.

So what, specifically, can we do as counselors to help our students follow the “right” crowd?

It is our responsibility to be the type of counselor/leader/role model that has been described in the earlier blogs.  But, we need to do more as well.         It is our job as counselors to provide:

  • Empathy with the pressures under which your children and adolescents are currently working;
  • A willingness to listen and a commitment to try to help them;
  • Help to identify approaches, resources and evaluation techniques;
  • Contacts through a network of teachers and other professionals who share our concerns.

It is our job to get involved in our student’s lives and help them get involved in productive activities that allow them to grow and learn.  Adolescents may act as if they do not want us as adults around, but they actually appreciate the care, compassion and even rules if extended appropriately.

What can you do if you feel your students are following the “wrong” crowd and may be falling into the “at risk” category?

This is a very tough one, because you are now doing repairs.  It is so much easier to catch an issue before it becomes an obstacle.  Now, you not only have to follow the above steps, but you first have to pull them back from this influence.  This is much easier said than done, but I will to provide some guidelines.

  • First, begin to develop a new group within the same context of their choice of friends. (This is where Small Group Counseling can help.) You could also talk to the parents about not forbidding their children to “hang out” with their current group of friends, but allowing get togethers at a party, the movies, a ball game, the park, the skating rink, their house, etc. With these activities, the parents can open the invitations up to some kids of your own choosing that share the family values.  I have rarely see a child turn down a party.
  • Second, with the encouragement of the above, these new friends become infused into the friend group and bring positive peer pressure. More exposure to these friends will build a stronger relationship with these new friends. 
  • Third, compliment the students on their personality or attitude when they are with this new group of friends.  Although students do not show open signs that they still needs adult approval, we know from our studies that this is still a major need.
  • Fourth, get family members involved in the school as well. We all know that parental involvement is the number indicator of student achievement. When a student is focused on school, they don’t have time to get involved in at risk activities.  
  • Fifth, have patience.  This will take time!

Defining Peer Pressure

Peer pressure if easily defined.  It is that compelling influence to act or look like those of our same rank, value, age, etc.  So, by definition, peer pressure is not bad.  We are sometimes influenced in a good way by those around us.  Yet, it becomes negative when we feel the pressure to act as we know we shouldn’t or against our own value system in the presence of our friends so that we will be accepted.  This is a very good argument for helping steer our students toward more positive peer groups.  No, we cannot choose their friends for them, but we can place them in positive places where they are more likely to make positive choices in peers or friends.

            But, for now, we need to know what to do when they do fall prey to negative peer pressure.  What prompts this pressure?  It is that little voice in our head asking us “very important” questions:  What will people say?  Will they approve?  Will they laugh?, etc.  It seems that such concerns influence our actions – especially our public conduct – more than anything else.

            Social pressure is a powerful force for all of us, but especially in the adolescent years.  And, as we are talking about adolescence, this becomes quite meaningful.  Social or peer pressure works by appealing to our desire not to be insulted, embarrassed, ridiculed, shamed, criticized, and so on.  The question of right and wrong is changed into a question of acceptable and unacceptable.  There is hardly a problem that attracts adolescents – drugs, violence, sexuality, etc. – that does not have peer pressure as its primary cause.  Countless lives have been turned upside down or totally destroyed by it. 

            But, is teen peer pressure an anomaly in an otherwise healthy society?  Obviously not.  It attracts our attention because of the scale of destruction it causes. 

            As a professional educator, I have found two factors vital to the successful maturation of a child – the home environment and the quality of education.  It has been my observation that children with unstable home environments and failed learning skills readily fall prey to the taunts and pressures that peers can inflict.  Conversely, children with a sound family life and effective study skills have the inner strength on which to build a future of their choosing and the ability to strive for and achieve their goals. 

            We have examples of this all around us, but some choose to ignore them because it forces an acceptance of responsibility for the children.  The shootings and violence at school have all been traced back to one factor – the “shooters” felt that they did not belong or were not accepted and loved.  Maslow proved long ago that it is a basic human need to belong.  Hence, we can say with reasonable surety that the absence of parent support causes children to feel this loss in tremendous proportion and act out in negative ways. 

            We have all heard the phrase, “The rich get richer.”  While I do not believe this to be particularly true when it comes to money (Anybody can work hard and prosper), I do agree with it in terms of love and belonging.  If we have a plentiful amount of love in our upbringing, then we get the sense that we can do anything!  That is the wealth of kings – the gift of affection, commitment, and attachment.  When that need of belonging is met, then one can move on to meet the other needs of education and societal success. 

This is where our role is most important. I always said of my counseling role that I don’t do discipline, and I don’t do homework. I just get to be the lady down the hall that loves them. We need to stand in the gap for those students who don’t have strong parents. While I believe that every parent does their best, some just do not have the wherewithal or are carrying too much baggage to provide the strong support that promotes student achievement. That’s where we come in. We can be that one positive role model that makes a difference.

The Peer Pressure Riddle

The ugly reality is that peer pressure reaches its greatest intensity at just the age when kids tend to be most insensitive and cruel. ~ Walt Mueller

Adolescence ushers in a phase where friends become the most important part of one’s existence. And, those relationships comes the added responsibility of working with those friends or peers. Peer pressure has been around since the dawn of time. Most of us can think of several stories with peer pressure as the theme.

The one that comes to mind most often, for me, is Mark Twain’s The Glorious Whitewasher, Chapter two of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. If you weren’t lucky enough to have this as part of your reading in school, a summary follows from Spark Notes (SparkNotes Editors, 2017).

On Saturday morning, Aunt Polly sends Tom out to whitewash the fence. Jim passes by, and Tom tries to get him to do some of the whitewashing in return for a “white alley,” a kind of marble. Jim almost agrees, but Aunt Polly appears and chases him off, leaving Tom alone with his labor. A little while later, Ben Rogers, another boy Tom’s age, walks by. Tom convinces Ben that whitewashing a fence is great pleasure, and after some bargaining, Ben agrees to give Tom his apple in exchange for the privilege of working on the fence. Over the course of the day, every boy who passes ends up staying to whitewash, and each one gives Tom something in exchange. By the time the fence has three coats, Tom has collected a hoard of miscellaneous treasures. Tom muses that all it takes to make someone want something is to make that thing hard to get. 

The kids wanted to belong and have “grown-up” fun so much that they were willing to accept that what would be considered work any other day was actually fun. It goes back to Maslow’s hierarchy and the need to belong. This is why it is so important that we use our leadership skills to help them choose the right friends. Everyone is doing it seems to be all that is necessary for justification. Yet, we as adults have to be cautious of two questions:

1.) Who is everyone?

2.) What is “it”? ( What is it that they are doing?) 

We’ll discuss these answers in the next blogs.

As counselors, we have to accept peer pressure, recognize it, and deal with it as peer pressure comes at us from all sides.  Yes, I said us.  We do not outgrow it once we’re adults.  Sometimes it is positive, but more often than not it is negative.  It seems to be an oxymoron in our Western society that we pride ourselves in our differences but still want to fit in with the rest by being alike.  We must help our students to learn to embrace the differences and role model that by doing it ourselves.  Magnificence is in all of us.  We need to be our student’s cheerleaders and help their peer become the same, so that peer pressure can become positive.

References

SparkNotes Editors. (2005). The Glorious Whitewasher.