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Adolescence and Peer Pressure

Herbert G. Lingren, Extension Family Scientist, "Adolescence and Peer Pressure," Family Life, December 1995, The adult perception of peers as having one culture or a unified front of dangerous influence is inaccurate. More often than not, peers reinforce family values, but they have the potential to encourage problem behaviors as well. Here are some facts about parent, adolescent and peer relations:

1. During adolescence, parents and adolescents become more physically and psychologically distant from each other. This normal distancing is seen in decreases in emotional closeness and warmth, increases in parent-adolescent conflict and disagreement, and an increase in time adolescents spend with peers. Unfortunately, this sometimes is caused because parents are emotionally unavailable to their teenaged children.

2. Increases in family strains (economic pressures, divorce, etc.) have prompted teenagers to depend more on peers for emotional support. By the high school years, most teenagers report feeling closer to friends than parents. Stress caused by work, marital dissatisfaction, family break-up caused by divorce, entering a step-family relationship, lower family income or increasing expenses, all produce increased individual and family stress.

3. Parent-adolescent conflict increases between childhood and early adolescence, although in most families, its frequency and intensity remain low. Typically, conflicts are the result of relationship negotiation and continuing attempts by parents to socialize their adolescents, and do not signal the breakdown of parent-adolescent relations. Parents need to include adolescents in decision-making and rule-setting that affects their lives.

4. In 10 to 20 percent of families, parents and adolescents are in distressed relationships characterized by emotional coldness and frequent outbursts of anger and conflict. Unresolved conflicts produce discouragement and withdrawal from family life. Adolescents in these families are at high risk for various psychological and behavioral problems.

5. Youth gangs, commonly associated with inner-city neighborhoods, are becoming a recognizable peer group among youth in smaller cities, suburbs, and even rural areas. Gangs are particularly visible in communities with a significant portion of economically disadvantaged families and when the parent is conflictual, distant or unavailable.

6. Formal dating patterns of two generations ago have been replaced with informal socializing patterns in mixed-sex groups. This may encourage casual sexual relationships that heighten the risk of exposure to AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.

"If the negative effect of peer pressure is to be minimized, youth, parents, school and community leaders must come together to establish workable and effective strategies to guide teen behavior and to support their transition from children to mature, responsible adults. Here are several strategies to consider (Brown, 1990):

1. Relinquish the stereotype of peers as a uniformly negative influence on youth. Although some teenage peer groups encourage drug use, delinquent activities and poor school performance, others discourage deviant activity in favor of school achievement and involvement in sports or other extra-curricular activities (e.g., 4-H, music, religious activities).

2. Nurture teenagers' abilities and self-esteem so they can forge positive peer relationships. The parent, schools and other agencies can be taught how to help develop the adolescent's self-concept and self-worth so he or she is a valued person.

3. Empower parents and educators to help teenagers pursue and maintain positive peer relationships. They can provide adolescents with the opportunity to succeed in constructive ways which are valued by the teen, the parent and the community alike.

4. Encourage cross-ethnic and "cross-class" peer interactions and guide teenagers in dealing positively with cultural diversity and individual differences. Parents, teachers, community leaders, and clergy can model appreciation for ethnic differences and support cross-class and cross-ethnic friendships. Schools and youth organizations can assist by encouraging youth from diverse backgrounds to work and play together. Place sensible restraints on part-time teen employment. This could ease adolescents' compliance with peer pressures to "buy" acceptance into a peer group (i.e., to have enough money for the "right" clothes, the "right" shoes, the "right" CDs, etc.). Increases in part-time employment among youth have had little impact on the time they spend with peers.

5. Support parent education programs for families with teenagers. Parents need to be better informed about the dynamics of adolescent peer groups and the demands and expectations teenagers face in peer relationships.

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