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For Parents

The Power of Peers

By Anita M. Smith
Vice President, The Institute for Youth Development

From the time children are toddlers participating in play groups, parents wonder and worry about what seems to be an ever powerful and permeating force in our children's lives-the influence of their peers.

How Well Do You Know Your Child's Peers?

This short exercise will help parents begin to see how to become positively engaged in their child's peer influence.

  1. Name your child's best friend.
  2. Name your child's next closest five or six friends.
  3. Do you know those friends' ages?
  4. Name those friends' parents' first names.
  5. Describe those friends' relationships with their parents.
  6. Name as many young people as you can in your child's peer group (usually about 50 individuals).
  7. Describe the social and behavioral characteristics of the leading (most popular) crowd at your child's school.
  8. Describe the social and behavioral characteristics of your child's school.

Source: Peer Potential: Making the Most of How Teens Influence Each Other by Peter Bearman and Hannah Bruchner, B. Bradford Brown and Wendy Theobald, Susan Philliber. Available from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, 2100 M St., NW, Ste. 300, Washington, DC 20037; www.teenpregnancy.org

We anguish over it when our children say their first bad word. We blame it for our adolescents' moodiness, or for their taste in music or clothing (when it is different from our own). We particularly focus on it at the beginning of the school year when our children are entering new grades, new schools, new clubs, sports teams, and myriad other situations in which they will meet new friends who can and will influence them.

Every parent remembers what it's like to be young and influenced by friends. Probably some parental concern about peer pressure stems from memories of their own adolescent desires to dress to fit in and be accepted by the cool crowd at school.

Most children freely acknowledge the reality of peer pressure in their lives. The majority of adolescents who participated in IYD focus groups recognized the power of peers in their lives.

"Friends do help you, but sometimes they want you to do things you wouldn't do if you were by yourself. Or sometimes you feel pressured to do something because everyone is doing it and you want to be cool, too." (boy)

"Kids make fun of you when you're different, like you're not cool or you don't wear the right kinds of clothes." (girl)

"Your friends' attitudes influence you. If they're all in a bad mood or something, you get that way, too." (boy)

Certainly peer influence is one of the realities in children's lives that seems largely outside of parental control. We sometimes tend to view it as an invisible, diabolical specter that is constantly and actively plotting our children's demise.

But while peer influence is complex and multi-faceted, some recent research findings should help parents both better understand it and find ways to positively impact its role in our children's lives.

The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (known as Add Health), surveyed more than 90,000 adolescents on many health-related issues. An analysis of data evaluating peer influence (specifically related to teen pregnancy) was recently released with some interesting and encouraging points for parents:
Much of peer influence is positive. On average, a girl's risk of pregnancy decreases by one percent for every one percent more low-risk than high-risk friends she has. In fact, a couple of high-risk female friends in a girl's crowd are not that dangerous, meaning, in this context, that such friends do not necessarily hasten first intercourse or increase the risk of pregnancy.

Peer pressure is only one way that peers influence each other. Peers model behavior for each other, structure opportunities in which adolescents can engage in these behaviors, and set norms that, during this stage in life, young people are particularly inclined to follow. All four types of influence (peer pressure, modeling, structuring opportunities, and setting and enforcing group norms) occur simultaneously in the daily lives of teens, delivering both complementary and conflicting messages.

Closest friends and the leading "in crowd" are less influential than we think. Teens' single closest friend may have less influence than expected because teens (like all people) commonly choose close friends who are like themselves. Teen girls are far more influenced by their immediate circle of friends and by the next larger peer group (or clique) than by their single closest friend or the leading crowd at school. The research shows that adolescents are influenced not just by current associates, peers whom they admire or with whom they'd like to develop closer ties-suggesting that teens may be more inclined to change their behavior to fit into a new crowd than to maintain a current friendship. However, researchers found no measurable effect (either positive or negative) by the leading crowd at school on the timing of first intercourse or pregnancy of girls.

Having high-risk male friends and older friends of both sexes increases girls' risk. For a teen girl, her risk of sexual debut is especially influenced by the age of her friends-older friends increase the risk substantially. And while having "good" (low-risk) male friends is protective, "bad" (high-risk) male friends may place girls at heightened risk for pregnancy.

Parents can impact peer influence. By promoting particular friendships and by engaging in certain strategies parents can affect their children's relationships with peers or peer groups which, in turn, can affect their risk for teen pregnancy. For example, parents can pay closer attention to their children's wider circle of friends and help steer them toward more low-risk male and female peers. In addition, parents have a good reason to get to know their children's friends and their parents. Researchers found that, with regard to a girl's risk of intercourse, her friends' closeness to their parents is equally as important as the girl's relationship with her own parent because girls whose friends have poor relationships with their parents are at greatest risk for earlier sexual activity.

Based on these findings, researchers suggested ways for parents and other adults to accentuate the positive roles that peers play in kids' lives, while at the same time remaining vigilant about the harmful effects that some high-risk friends can have.

  • Look beyond your child's best friend to his or her close circle and wider peer group to understand the full range of peer influence.
  • Pay attention to the composition of your teen's immediate circle of friends.
    Relax about the effect of one or two risky female friends on your daughter. On the average it is not harmful for "good" girls to have a few high-risk female friends. And your daughter's friendship may be good for those high-risk friends by helping reduce their risk.
  • Focus more on your teen's positive friends. These are the peers who are making a difference. Helping young people sustain positive relationships with good role models is protective.
  • Pay close attention to high-risk boys and significantly older friends of both sexes in your daughter's circle of friends. Their influence can be negative.
  • Learn about the relationships your child's friends have with their parents. By steering your children to friends who are close to their own parents, you can help reduce risk.

Peers will always influence children, but equipped with the information and tools to affect peers' influence on their child, parents can approach their child's friends with confidence and have a positive impact on not only their own child, but also their child's circle of friends.


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The Institute for Youth Development
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