Peer pressure: Helping teens make wise choices

Picture this: your teenager arrives home after a long day at school, their face bearing the weight of a thousand emotions. They toss their bag onto the sofa, sighing, and you can tell something is wrong.


As a parent or carer of a teen or nearly teenage child, you often find yourself standing at a crossroads as you watch your child venture into a world of newfound independence, friendships, and challenges. While this is a time of self-discovery and growth, it also comes with a maze of influences from their world, positive and negative, over which it can feel you have no control. From the relative safety of family and home that you have worked to provide them with, the lure of peer pressure is significant as they turn towards others around them.

So, how do you equip your teenager with the skills and reliance they need to navigate the waves of peer influence while making responsible choices along the way? And remain calm and resilient yourself!

What is peer pressure?

Our peers are people in the same social group as us, for example, your child's friends and classmates. Peer pressure is the influence members of a social group have on other members to do things they might not otherwise choose to do. The influence can be subtle to more direct and coercive. Remember being cheered on by your friends when you were a kid to down that drink in one? Or the fear of missing out on a party because everyone is going? That's peer pressure.

While the term is often used when people are talking about more negative, risky or socially unacceptable behaviour, such as experimenting with alcohol or other drugs, it can also have positive effects, such as a drive to study or exercise.

It's all in the brain

Adolescents are more susceptible to peer influence because of how their brains develop. Understanding what is happening developmentally in your child is vital as it gives you an understanding of 'why' they are behaving the way they do and helps you recognise typical adolescent behaviour and what might be cause for concern. 

  • The part of the brain responsible for decision-making, impulse control and judgement (the prefrontal cortex) is developing significantly during adolescence. This area is crucial for evaluating the consequences of our actions and making rational decisions. As it matures, teens gradually gain the ability to think more abstractly and to consider the long-term effects of their choices.
  • The limbic system, associated with emotions and rewards, develops earlier, which explains why teens often experience that heightened emotional intensity and sensitivity that their parents are all too aware of. Alongside this, they are seeking immediate gratification and social rewards. They are more inclined to respond to peer pressure, which can give the social acceptance and belonging that is so important.

This also means that:

  1. Your teenager is more attuned to approval or disapproval from their peers and super sensitive to social cues, making conforming to their peer group's norms and expectations vital to them.
  2. When they are in the presence of their peers, adolescents' brain activity related to reward and social processing increases, meaning they are more willing to take risks or make decisions on what they think their peers will respond favourably to. This is why they might seem capable of sensible choices when they are with you, which then fly out the window when they are with their friends.

All this is to say that, whilst they are looking for independence, they still need your guidance.

How can you guide them?

Open questions and non-judgmental communication

'How was your day at school today? Did anything interesting happen with your friends?'. 'Have you ever felt pressured to do something you weren't comfortable with? Can you tell me more about it?' Give them your full attention when they're telling you, and let them speak before you offer comments.

Help your teen build resilience and make responsible choices

This could include specific scenarios and role-playing exercises that parents can do with their teens to practice saying "no" in difficult situations.

Encourage them to find and join positive peer groups

For example, groups that share their interests and values, as this can help to mitigate negative influences. After-school activities and clubs help with this, so your teen has their school friends and dance friends, for example. 

Having supportive friends

Friends who encourage healthy habits and academic success can have a significant effect on your teen's overall well-being. Encourage these friendships.

Be a positive role model

They are looking to you to see how you handle situations. Talk to them about times you have opted out of doing something because your friends were doing it. You can also tell them how you turned from negative to positive influences in your own life. Let them know about positive outcomes from making responsible decisions rather than going along with peer pressure.

Examples of positive peer pressure

While peer pressure is often associated with negative or risky behaviours, it's important to acknowledge that peer influence can have positive effects, too. 

Doing well at school

Encourage your teenager to join study groups or engage with friends who value academic success. When peers celebrate achievements and share a common goal of doing well in school, it can inspire your teen to prioritise their education.

Involvement in sports and physical activity

Positive peer pressure can manifest healthily through sports, dance, or other physical activities. Friends who enjoy being active can motivate your teenager to adopt a healthier lifestyle.

Avoiding substance use

Supportive friends who avoid alcohol, drugs, or vaping can have a significant favourable influence on your teenager's choices.

Exploring artistic interests

Your teen might have friends who engage in art classes, creating and sharing their artwork. This can encourage your teenager to develop their creative skills and to express themselves.

Reach out for support

If you worry peer pressure is leading to severe emotional distress or substance abuse, seek professional help.

If you're struggling to communicate with your teen or need further guidance, I specialise in adolescent issues, so get in touch to see how we can work together. I can give you strategies and the confidence to manage this and to see the parenting wood for the trees. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Seaford, East Sussex, BN25
Written by Jennifer Warwick, MSc Psych, BACP Registered | Counsellor and Parenting Expert
Seaford, East Sussex, BN25

I am a BACP registered counsellor working online. I work with people who struggle to balance work, home and family life. People constantly rush, looking after others over themselves and are exhausted.

I specialise in supporting parents and carers as they navigate their child's tween and teenage years. Contact me for an introductory chat by phone.

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