Family, Kids & Relationships

How to talk to kids about peer pressure in a way that they’ll want to listen to

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Peer pressure is among every parent’s worst nightmares. But while it might feel like it’s out of your control, there are things you can do and say to make it less likely that your child will do something dangerous just because their friends are doing it.

Of course you can (and should) start encouraging kids to think for themselves as early as preschool. Start by doing things like reminding them not to copy everything that their friends do, and encouraging them to say “no” when they feel uncomfortable. Kids start caring about what peers think (and less about what parents think!) around age seven, so these conversations should be ongoing.

But when they’re teens and tweens, peer pressure can ramp up (and the pressures become more serious) so it’s important to talk about it directly. Here’s a script to help you delve into the risks of peer pressure in a way that really gets through to older kids.

Your conversation should include…

  • Explain what peer pressure looks like
  • Tell them how peer pressure works
  • Let them know the risks
  • Give ideas for how to respond
  • Offer an escape plan
  • Reinforce their independence
  • Reassure them that mistakes are normal

Explain what peer pressure looks like

“Peer pressure is when you are influenced to do certain things because you want to fit in with other kids. But it’s not just someone directly pressuring you to do something—although that could happen!”

“It could also be when you see someone who you think is cool wearing a certain type of hat, and then you start to really want that same kind of hat too. Or it could be when you’re in a group and people start making fun of someone, and you have to decide what to do or say.”

“Peer pressure can also happen on social media—like when you see the popular kids posting videos of themselves playing drinking games, or when someone says that whoever doesn’t send pics is a prude.”

Tell them how peer pressure works

“It’s totally normal to want to fit in, and to want to be part of a group! But just know that as a teen it can be extra challenging to make good decisions when you’re under peer pressure. There’s actually science behind this.”

“When you’re a teenager your brain is coded to really, really care about social rewards. So when someone compliments you, or when you feel accepted by a group, your brain focuses extra hard on that and makes it into much more of a big deal than it would be for an adult.”

Let them know the risks

“That’s why if you’re under peer pressure, like when you are driving and your friends are in the car, or you’re posting on social media and the popular kids are going to see it, you might have a tendency to make rash decisions that are ONLY for the social rewards instead of also thinking about your own health and safety, and the health and safety of those around you.”

“Impulsive decisions in general can put you in danger, whether it’s a risk to your health (like getting in a car accident) or to your safety (like sneaking out at night to meet up with friends).” 

“Plus, your brain and body aren’t fully developed so you actually do have to be extra careful about certain substances like alcohol, marijuana, and drugs. They can do more long-term damage to your body and brain now than they would if you used them as an adult.”

Give ideas for how to respond to peer pressure

“When you feel pressured to do something that you don’t think is a good idea, here are some ideas of what to say.”

  • Nah, I feel like doing my own thing today.
  • That’s OK, I was about to do XYZ if anyone wants to join me.
  • Eh, it’s not worth the trouble I’d get in with my parents. They’re super strict.
  • No thanks, I’m taking a break from that.
  • I’ll just watch. I wanna see how this goes first.
  • Hmmm, will you still be my friend if I say no?
  • I feel like I’m watching some cautionary video about the dangers of peer pressure.
  • I don’t think this will look good when I run for president.
  • No thanks, I’m just here for the free snacks/music/people watching.
  • I’m trying to be responsible so I can earn a later curfew.
  • I’ve actually gotta go, my mom is mad because I promised I would be home. Anyone need a ride?
  • No, I feel like I would regret that later.
  • What could we do instead that won’t get me kicked off the team?

“Do you have any other ideas of what to do or say?”

Offer an escape plan

“You can always blame me if you want to leave a situation that’s making you uncomfortable. Let’s come up with a code word that you can text or say on the phone, and I’ll come or call right away.”

“I promise you won’t be in trouble with me if you choose to do that. No judgment about what you were doing or who you were with, OK?”

“Do you think you would use that if you needed to?”

Reinforce their independence

“It’s a wonderful feeling to be part of a group of friends, but don’t let that swallow up your ability to make independent decisions. Remember that you’re great because you’re unique, and people will respect you if you do your own thing with confidence.”

“So if a certain group is making you feel pressured all the time, or worried about being cool enough, then maybe that’s not the group for you. This applies to social media too. If seeing someone’s posts are making you feel bad, then YOU have the power to stop looking at them.”

“I learned this the hard way when I was your age. I spent way too much time trying to follow around these popular kids, and I thought it was so important for some reason—but I wasn’t happy. And then I ended up without any good friends who really ‘got’ me.”

Reassure them that mistakes are normal

“I don’t expect you to be perfect. Everyone makes mistakes or does things they regret later.”

“I hope you know that you can always come to me. My job is to help you, not get you in trouble. So if you’ve done something you regret or if your friends are doing something dangerous and you’re not sure what to do, you can tell me. I promise not to judge you or overreact.”

Unfortunately, there’s no failsafe that will completely guarantee that your kids always stand up against negative peer pressure—and even the most confident independent thinker will make not-so-great decisions now and then. But by opening this dialogue with your child, and showing your support, you can be the support system they need as they navigate this phase of life.

Joanna Eng is a staff writer and digital content specialist at ParentsTogether. She lives with her wife and two kids in New York, where she loves to hike, try new foods, and check out way too many books from the library.