Schools are the perfect breeding ground for peer pressure and teachers are in a key position to do something about it. In this article Shahrezad Samiuddin explores how you can help children separate positive peer pressure from negative and encourage them to make their own decisions.
The gaping hole
It all started with Maryam in sixth grade. Maryam was slightly bigger than the other girls in class, which helped increase her influence on us and she had just bought a ‘cool’ looking, (not to mention expensive) pencil case to school. A couple of days later another girl Maha also found the pencil case in a shop and bought it too. Shortly thereafter, half the class had bought it while the other half spent a great deal of time begging, cajoling and generally annoying their parents to get the pencil case which had a dozen buttons and various compartments (many of them useless). I remember spotting the pencil case in a stationery shop, admiring it and playing with it a little bit, then looking at the price tag which brought my dreams of owning it to an end. Yet I felt bad for not being able to buy it and felt a pang every time I saw a classmate show off their contraption to a have-not.Plus Size Evening Dresses
I also felt inadequate in front of those who owned ‘that’ pencil case, as if my life had a big hole, with the most important part missing right from its centre.
This is a relatively harmless example of the kind of feeling of inadequacy that peer pressure can instill. Now that I am an adult, those feelings of inadequacy and that gaping hole comes back every time one of my three children insists on following – usually ‘buying’ – the latest fad and I struggle with whether to give in or to grit my teeth and hold out. These are obvious examples of peer pressure, mostly to do with acquiring the latest toy.
The urge to belong
However there is a more insidious form of peer pressure that children regularly succumb to. Consider the following scenarios. Succumbing to pressure from her friends, 15-year old Sukaina lights her first cigarette and continues to smoke it, even though she doesn’t like the taste. Or six-year old Fatima insists on buying expensive branded joggers, which ‘everyone’ in her class has. Or consider eleven-year old Ayaan who bullies the new quiet child in class because everyone else is doing so, even though he secretly feels sorry for him and knows that it is wrong. While all these children may know that what they are doing is wrong, they do it just to be part of the herd. Just so they can belong.
Being influenced by their peers is a natural part of growing up and it is human nature to want respect and acceptance from others and in many cases it can be harmless. However if not checked, peer pressure may spiral out of control and may lead to more serious problems such as children trying drugs, shop lifting, cheating on tests and exams, playing truant, bullying, vandalising and any other action that a child may not want to do under normal circumstances.
It is everywhere
While everyone (yes even adults!) is vulnerable to pressure from their peers, there are certain types of children who are more susceptible to conforming to the herd, than others. The list is not a surprising one. Children who have low self esteem and lack confidence are more likely to want to conform in order to fit in. Students who don’t have any specific interests or hobbies apart from hanging out with their peer group are more likely to succumb to peer pressure. Also those who feel that they are ‘different’ may attempt to fit in, by giving in to the whims of their more popular peers. And finally those who aren’t doing well in school and those who lack a direction in life are more likely to want to please others in order to join the gang.
While it is children’s parents who probably have to bear the brunt of peer pressure and who can perhaps do the most about it, a teacher is in a powerful position to discourage negative pressure and nurture positive pressure. Before we run around brandishing flags against peer pressure it is important to understand that peer influence can also be positive … but more on that later.
Conforming to negative pressure
So what exactly is peer pressure? It is the influence exerted by a group of people that encourages a person to change his or her attitudes, values, or behaviour in order to conform to group norms. And at its worst peer pressure can be dangerous, against school rules, home rules and a child’s personal values.
So how can a teacher help children deal with negative peer pressure? Basically anything that helps increase a student’s confidence will help them feel good about themselves; make them stronger and more capable of thwarting any negative influence.
Subtle ways of helping a child’s self confidence grow include valuing the opinion of a child. Thus when a child sees that he is capable of making a good decision on her own she will be less likely swayed by others’ opinions.
To build self-esteem children should be encouraged to take part in positive activities, which can also become hobbies or future careers such as music or sports. These help boost a child’s self image and keep gainfully occupied for a time that could have been spent in negative pursuits.
Children can also be encouraged to be more aware and identify situations that put them under negative peer pressure and give them the confidence to suggest to others that they should do other things. So for instance if a child is pressured to sneak out of school with a group of friends and have a kabab roll, he should think of a more acceptable alternative such as ‘We can go to the kabab roll shop after school is over.’
Children should also be taught to sense situations that may lead to trouble. That means watching out for words such as, ‘We won’t get into trouble’ or ‘Everyone else is doing it.
Saying ‘no’ may be difficult but is often the best way to deal with a situation. Children should also be taught to say no, because often it’s the simplest and shortest answer. One way of doing this is to role-play situations in the class where children say, ‘no,’ nicely but unambiguously. The role-play situations can be taken from their real lives where they face peer pressure. You can have fun with role play and set challenges such as “Saying no to drugs, but not actually using the word ‘No’” and see what responses the children come up with and what works and what doesn’t.
Steps to dealing with pressure
Children should be taught to evaluate a situation to see whether they are being put under peer pressure. Whenever they are in an uncomfortable position, children should be told to ask the following questions: Why would I do that? Whose idea was this? Is this a smart thing to do?
They should evaluate what they are being asked to do and how they feel about it. Is vandalizing school property a good idea? Should we bunk class? At the same time they should think about the consequences of what they are doing. If they vandalise school property or bunk class they may get caught and get suspended or even expelled from school.
The next step could be to think of an alternative action, such as suggesting the friends play a game rather than destroy school property or planning an activity after school instead of bunking class to sneak out.
If none of this works teach children to remove themselves from the situation and do something else. If they have the confidence they should just say ‘no’ and if not they could make a joke about the situation and change the subject.
It’s not all bad!
As mentioned earlier, peer pressure need not be negative. It can be valuable when it comes to positive group activities such as being part of a sports team or when doing voluntary and community service. Peer pressure can also come in handy when studying in a group or doing a group project.
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Thwarting all forms of peer pressure is virtually impossible for even the strongest of individuals. All of us are constantly bombarded with choices everyday and a big part of growing up is being able to take your own decisions and standing by them. Recognizing and resisting negative peer pressure is a big part of maturing as an individual and necessary for stopping children from indulging in harmful behaviour.
Shahrezad Samiuddin has three children aged 12, 8 and 5 and is part of the TRC Team.
Helping Adolescents Deal with Peer Pressure, School Mental Health, 2006
Dave Stott, “Peer pressure: good or bad?”, November 2007, Teaching Expertise,
A teacher’s guide to Peer pressure, Lee Shumow,