‘If your friends all jumped off a cliff, would you do that too?’
How many times did you hear your parents ask you that after being caught doing something they deemed brainless? The power of the pack made you do it. Literally.
As a teenager, did you do something you didn’t really want to, something risky you knew was a bad idea, just because your friends did were doing it?
Whether it was pretending to like drinking and getting drunk even after the novelty had worn off, or trying pot and hash while pretending to inhale; I just wanted to feel accepted. I wanted to be liked and feel ‘cool’. So why, as a highly intelligent and relatively emotionally aware teen, did I still succumb to the pressure?
It’s how we’re wired.
We’re wired for relationships and instinctively understand the safety of being part of a pack. For your teen, whose self-esteem just hit bottom, their drive to blend in and be LIKE others to avoid comparison or standing out, is part of their survival.
- Self-identity refers to the descriptive characteristics, qualities, and abilities that people use to define themselves.
- Self-esteem is a concept very similar to self-identity but includes a value judgment about one’s identity.
Teens are awkward in part because their self-identity is far from solidified, feeding a degree of insecurity and their willingness to risk almost anything for a shred of acceptance, especially from their peers. Their newly forming complex thought processes and emotions make them highly susceptible to comparison and increases their need to belong.
‘The physical changes of puberty, coupled with newly emerging mental abilities, cause youth to become self-conscious about their bodies and concerned with how others perceive them. As a result, self-esteem seems to be at an all-time low during early adolescence.’
Angela Oswalt Morelli, MSW, edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.
Anonymity is social suicide for teens.
The choice to stand alone, away from the pack, brings risk you might associate with public speaking or standing on a street corner naked. For your teen, the risk feels higher and even unexplainable when faced with choices that seem simple to you. It’s critical to remember this when you’re asking (or begging) your teen not to take part in drinking, drugs, vaping, sex, etc., expecting them to be the person who says, “Yeah, I don’t do ___________”.
It’s about survival. Adding that to their thoughts, feelings, and choices become more complex.
“Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.” – Brené Brown
Your teen’s drive to feel accepted has them doing crazy things because of trying desperately to fit in and it’s the reason peer pressure works. Fitting in FEELS like belonging. Without understanding the difference, your teen continues to seek fitting in and succumbs to peer pressure, slowly losing themselves in the process.
If your teen feels they have to fit in at home, they’re going to do the same with friends, increasing their risk in every social situation because their brain development is ripe for it. When your teen experiences belonging at home, feeling fully loved and accepted for who they are, their chances of falling prey to risky behaviours go down dramatically.
The most sure-fire way to help your teens avoid feeling at risk of standing alone AND fitting in by compromising their own beliefs or values is helping them experience belonging at home. That might sound ‘of course!’ to you. The number of teens who tell me they feel they need to fit in at home is staggering.
Belonging builds courage and conviction to stand alone.
Empowering your teen by building self-esteem and confidence means having conversations about normal teen behaviours without judgement or condemnation. When your teen feels safe to share what their friends are doing, you have an opportunity to help them clarify their values and beliefs and come to their own decisions (which may be different from yours).
Those conversations are important for your son/daughter to work through possible outcomes and associated risks. Only then are they equipped to bear the risk of standing even somewhat alone.
It’s not a one-time thing.
Refuelling your teen’s resolve, courage, and reasoning with unconditional love is an ongoing project that includes helping them find words to use when uncomfortable situations arise.
i.e. “Yeah my parents said I can’t do that.” – ❌ Throwing you under the bus doesn’t always take the pressure off them. Their friends may perceive this as weakness.
“Nah, I’m good. I don’t feel like it today, but it’s cool. No biggie” – ✅ Being non-judgemental/critical of their friends allows them to stay in the social group, even though they might still be pressured to partake.
If your teen has gotten caught up in risky choices because of peer pressure, take a breath and remember their current stage of brain development: low self-esteem, shaky self-identity and a desperate need to feel accepted. Then start a curious conversation rather than a critical one, even if a consequence is necessary.
If understanding your teen’s brain feels more like diffusing a bomb and you’re unsure how to navigate difficult conversations and emotional roller coasters, I get it!
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Parenting is hard. Let’s do this together.