How to talk to kids about peer pressure



Peer pressure is a normal part of growing up. But what is peer pressure exactly, and how can we help our children navigate through it?

When Kayla Harrison’s nine-year-old daughter Daisy came home from a playdate and asked if they could go shopping for a ‘crop top’, Kayla baulked. “I asked her why she wanted one, and she told me all her friends wear them and they look cool,” she says. “No one had said anything to her about it directly; she just wanted to be in the crop top gang.” The case of peer pressure gave Kayla a lot to think about as a parent.

“I was torn between thinking it was inappropriate for a nine-year-old, but at the same time I didn’t want her to feel she didn’t fit in with her friends,” she says. “I remember how important that was to me when I was at school.”

Kayla and Daisy compromised on a shorter style tie-waist shirt that only shows her tummy when she puts her hands in the air. “I was glad to find something we were both happy with,” says Kayla. “But I know this is just the beginning.”

What is peer pressure?

Peer pressure is defined as a feeling to “do the same things as other people of one's age and social group in order to be liked or respected by them”.

Most kids want to fit in. They don’t want to stand out from the crowd because it might mean being ostracised by their classmates. Consequently, they're often eager to dress the way their peers dress, or talk the way their peers do.

But peer pressure isn’t always a bad thing. “Peer pressure tends to have negative connotations, but it can also work in a positive way,” says parent educator Amy Haddadi. “For example, your child might be influenced to try new things such as sports or music. And if kids are shown empathy and kindness, they are likely to notice when friends are struggling and will encourage others to offer support.”

Some of the positive things peer groups offer include:

  • a sense of belonging and acceptance
  • increased self-confidence
  • a sense of being supported and of feeling ‘got’ by others
  • a safe place to test values and ideas
  • a rung on the ladder towards independence.

When does peer pressure start?

While we most often think of peer pressure affecting teenagers, it can start much earlier, with established social groups a part of school life by the age of eight or nine.

“It happens as a child’s focus starts to edge away from the family,” says Amy. “And there is a gender difference – girls are more likely to encounter peer pressure at a younger age than boys.”

Our new HCF parenting podcast, Navigating Parenthood: Growing Great Tweens looks at the difference between primary school and high school friends when it comes to peer pressure and friendship advice, and talks to parents of tweens to see how they manage when various situations arise.

Can peer pressure affect kids’ mental health?

Peer pressure – also called peer influence – can be direct or indirect, spoken or observed. Just because no one is telling your child how to behave doesn’t make the pressure to conform any less intense. But, says Kirrilie Smout, clinical psychologist with Calm Kid Central, the solution is not to alienate your child from their peers.

“While peer pressure can have negative effects, peer connection is critical to mental health,” she says. “As children get older, especially into the teenage years, they need increasing peer connection to form friendships and practise interaction. Kids who don’t have those opportunities tend to underperform socially and educationally.”

What are the signs a child is feeling peer pressure?

It’s just not cool to admit that you feel pressured by your friends to behave in a certain way, so the signs can be hard to find. “90% of kids will tell you they don’t care what their friends think, because it’s embarrassing to acknowledge that they do,” says Kirrilie. “Parents should just assume that the desire to fit in is universal, and accept that it’s part of the human experience.”

How do you talk to kids about peer pressure?

If your child comes to you to talk about something they want to do to fit in – like Kayla’s daughter did – it’s important not to shut down the conversation.

“When a child wants to chat and share their internal world, it’s great because it means the two-way conversation is still happening,” says Amy. “Responding in the right way is important because as they get older, you still want to be having those conversations.”

Amy’s tips for successful conversations with your child:

  • Make time to talk. It might seem strange to think you don’t have time for a conversation with your kid, but when we’re rushing from place to place, sometimes there’s no opportunity for a child to come and talk to you. Create space for ‘talk time’, when you aren’t distracted.
  • Practise active listening and quell your urge to react. If a teenager tells you they are being pressured to do something they’re not comfortable with, don’t make assumptions. Instead, try to be reflective and ask questions without judgement.
  • Rehearse situations with your tween or teen. Get them to practise how to say no, and map out how those conversations might go so they are prepared in the moment.
  • Assess the situation. Ask your child if the situation is something they feel they can handle and, if necessary, step in – you may need to talk to a teacher or fellow parent. Don’t assume it’s always best to let kids sort things out for themselves.

Kirrilie suggests tackling specific situations as they arise. “Talking about pressure to drink alcohol, or join in with inappropriate jokes on social media, is often easier than solving the whole issue of peer pressure,” she says.

“Let them know you are there to talk if they feel pressure to behave in a way that puts them at risk. Reassure your children that it’s normal to feel a desire to be liked. And let them know that it won’t matter quite so much as they get older.”

Helping your kids with big feelings

HCF members who have hospital or extras cover can access Calm Kid Central*, an online educational and support program helping kids aged 4–11 manage their big feelings and emotional challenges. The program provides confidential access to an experienced child psychologist who can answer your questions within 48 hours, as well as tools and resources to help you support your child.

Words by Sara Mulcahy
Published July 2022

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* Excludes Accident Only Basic cover and Overseas Visitors Health Cover.

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