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Published August 13, 2010, 12:00 AM

Teen peer groups can be a positive influence

What do you think of those mysterious and seemingly dreaded forces in our society – teenage peer groups and pressure? Do you conjure up nightmare images of gangs, drugs, sex and alcohol? If so, you are not alone. The public has a tendency to associate teen peer group influence as only negative.

By: Val Farmer, INFORUM

What do you think of those mysterious and seemingly dreaded forces in our society – teenage peer groups and pressure? Do you conjure up nightmare images of gangs, drugs, sex and alcohol? If so, you are not alone. The public has a tendency to associate teen peer group influence as only negative.

Peer groups are not inherently positive or negative. They can be both good and bad. Teen friendships, group interactions and influences are a part of positive development. Here are some ideas on peer group influence:

Why are peer groups important? Children learn to evaluate themselves through the eyes of their peers. They get important feedback on their personal characteristics. They practice and gain social skills and confidence. They learn fairness, cooperation and how to defer personal gratification to group goals.

Teens learn how to make themselves more attractive and interesting to others. They learn to school their aggressive reactions in the interest of fitting in. They enjoy companionship while exploring their interests – sports, music, art, debate, honor society, drama, languages, etc.

When and why are peer groups influential? Peer groups become important in late elementary years and peak during the eighth or ninth grade. Teens with a strong need to belong are more subject to peer influence.

During high school, peer group influences start to wane. Individual identity, values and goals play more of a role in decision-making. Older teens have more of a sense of who they are and what they want. Some teens are open to everyone and can befriend others in different groups without needing to belong to a particular group themselves.

Some peer groups can be exclusive and closed while others may be more open to newcomers and outsiders. Some groups have strong values and norms and demand conformity. Influence within the group may be widespread or centralized because of the attitudes of certain individuals. Sometimes a teen’s inability to fit in may be due to circumstances beyond his or her control.

Positive peer groups usually have strong bonds to school while negative groups are anti-education in some fashion. Religious peer groups mix teens from different schools and age groups.

Deviant peer groups form from socially rejected children or those whose family life is lacking in attention and love. Another factor is poor academic achievement. Negative peer groups are more prone to go across ages, especially younger age peers, to find companions sympathetic to their antisocial attitudes.

What about parental influence and peer groups? If decisions are long term and have strong consequences, then parental influence is still strong. If their most important decisions are more short term – style and mannerisms, clothes, personal expressions, etc. – teens will be most influenced by their peers.

There is a myth that parents lose influence to the peer group. Researchers have found that children who have strong parental influence also have strong peer influences at the same time. As they grow toward maturity, they are more interdependent with both parents and peers.

Teens who are neglected or have too many conflicts with their parents often connect with friends who tend to be anti-education and antisocial. Getting love, attention, respect and encouragement in the family helps teens be less dependent on peer approval.

What can parents do? Here are a few recommendations:

  • Get to know your children’s friends. Make your home a place where your children’s friends are welcome. Get to know their names. Recognize and greet them socially when you see them in public. Form a relationship with them.

    Let your children host their friends at your home. At younger ages, drive them on trips and activities. Don’t be too intrusive.

  • Don’t overreact. Be cautious about judging. Children will devalue your opinion and not trust your judgment if they see you are judging wrong or on surface impressions. One bad apple doesn’t spoil the barrel. A problem kid can benefit from a positive peer group and won’t necessarily be a negative drag on your child’s behavior or character.

    Your child can recognize the good and bad in their friends and not judge them too harshly. It is when the mix of friends is predominantly negative that parents need to be concerned. If most of your child’s friends are positive influences, relax and trust your child’s judgment.

  • Set the stage. Encourage them to get involved in activities and interest groups where they can form friendships. Skills give them greater self-confidence and more acceptance from others. Some children may need coaching on social skills such as being friendly, talkative and assertive.
  • Keep your lines of communication open. Help them when peer relationships go awry. Be concerned and helpful. Keep your own relationship positive.
  • Do things as a family. Enjoy each other’s company. Go camping. Eat out. Family activities provide a good balance to the ups and downs of peer friendships. Teens need both a comfort zone of security with family life and with their peer groups at school and church.


Val Farmer is a clinical psychologist specializing in family business consultation and mediation with farm families. He lives in Wildwood, Mo., and can be contacted through his website.

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