Peer pressure is one of the most oft-cited factors contributing to substance use. Teens are coached in school drug prevention programs to stand up to peer pressure. They are given tools, such as rehearsed phrases aimed at declining drugs or alcohol, that prepare them to avoid substance use without alienating themselves from a social group.
However, parents who want their teen to avoid substance use may want to begin talking to their child when they are in their elementary school years. A study by researchers at the University of Maryland finds that peer pressure may begin as early as the age of nine.
Peer Pressures Affecting Elementary-Age Kids
The findings, say the authors, can help parents and teachers be aware of possible negative influences affecting children in school. The researchers say that group influences and cliques can form even in elementary school and can affect everyday decisions among the students.
The study, which appears in a recent issue of the journal Child Development, provides findings that are not consistent with earlier work. Previous research showed that children are not faced with the type of inner conflict that pits group loyalty against convictions of fair treatment of outsiders until the teen years.
The researchers say that their findings can be applied in a new area of study called “group dynamics of childhood.” This is the first study to examine how children make decisions when they are forced to choose between group loyalty and a perceived injustice to someone who is not a member of the group.
Led by Dr. Melanie Killen, a developmental researcher at the University of Maryland, the shows that peer pressure is not limited to the adolescent world. Kids in elementary school, says Killen, may confront issues of peer pressure on a daily basis.
Moral Decisions And Independence Starting Younger Than Previously Thought
However, the researchers found that even in the elementary years, children show evidence of moral independence. They are willing to stand up to a group for the sake of fairness to another person. The researchers note, too, that the findings illustrate that group prejudices also exist far earlier than previously thought.
While the navigating of peer pressure issues becomes more complex in adolescence, children become practiced at weighing the costs of resisting the pressure from peers at an early age. At the same time, the positive effect of social groups also emerges during this time, including the building of friendships and social support.
The downside of the emergence of groups includes situations in which the group becomes unfair in its behaviors towards others, or members of an “outgroup.” This is illustrated in the study, in which fourth and eighth graders were interviewed in a Mid-Atlantic suburban community.
The students, who were all from middle income families, were asked about a situation in which resources were being divided up between those inside and outside a social group, and on a situation involving a tradition of group T-shirts.
The findings showed that children who are members of a group that is behaving selfishly are able to identify the injustice and explain its nature. They also indicated that a member of the group should stand up to the others and voice the concern, while recognizing that the threat of exclusion from the group is also a concern.
The children also indicated support for a fellow member willing to stand up to the group, and responded more positively when asked about members who voice support for outsides of the group compared to the response related to members who wanted to treat outsiders unfairly.
What Can Parents Do To Help Their Child’s Peer Pressure Influences?
The findings indicate that peer influences begin much earlier than previously believed, and parents can help their young children navigate these challenging social situations. By keeping an open conversation with their children during elementary school about the risks and rewards of standing firm under peer pressure, parents may make a natural transition to coaching their kids through peer pressure in the teen years as well.
From a young age, parents can help children recognize that even when there is a high cost, standing up to the group for what is right is the best option.