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Guide to Peer Pressure

There may be nothing more uncomfortable for adolescents and teenagers than feeling like they don’t fit in. For many, these emotions linger and stay with them throughout their adult lives. Sometimes they want so desperately to belong to a group of peers that they’ll go against their better judgement and make choices that are not in their best interest, such as engaging in substance abuse.

peer pressure rateThe average age at which a child first uses marijuana is just 14.[1] Alcohol use often comes early too, with 62 percent reporting their first drink by the age of 15 in one study.[2] Teens are easily influenced by peers, because they’re far more likely to believe the reward – being accepted by one’s peers – outweighs the risks than an adult weighing the same factors. One survey touts only a mere 10 percent of youths report never having been influenced by peer pressure.[3]

Sometimes peer pressure comes in the form of direct encouragement to try alcohol or an illicit substance but not always. In many cases, the youth perceives this pressure simply by being the odd one out in a crowd of substance-abusing peers. This goes back to the importance of fitting in among youths.

Guide Sections


All friends are not created equal Skip To

When to Worry

Every measure should be taken to find out Skip To

At Risk Youths

Peer pressure is merely one component Skip To

Managing It

Youths can walk away from peer pressure Skip To

Peer pressure has grown leaps and bounds, too; it is far beyond urging a friend to share a cigarette behind the building after school. Social media plays a big part in peer pressure and substance abuse today. In one survey of 12-17 year old youths, 75 percent claimed online images of partying teens using drugs or drinking make them want to do the same.[4] Furthermore, nearly 11 million of these teens report seeing images like these on the Internet, and 47 percent of them think the adolescents pictured look like they’re having fun.[5]

drinking to be cool

All Friends Are Not Created Equal

Belonging to a peer group is believed to be more beneficial than not belonging to one though. Substance abuse rates are higher among youths who are isolated from peers or family members. Per a study conducted by CASAColumbia, teens who regularly partake in family dinners are less likely to try drugs than those who have fewer regular family dinners.[6] There comes a time in nearly every adolescent’s life when their peers will seem superior and of more importance to them than their family — especially when it comes to their opinions. The average teenager goes through a myriad of life lessons and hormonal upsets during their adolescent years, and there are plenty of times when they will gauge their self-perception from what peers think of them. Children want to feel like they belong, and they want to be accepted by their peers. One 2007 study notes 65 percent of teenagers surveyed believed drug use would help them establish a cool reputation among their peers.[7]

When to Worry

Unfortunately, the adolescent years leave room for a lack of good judgement at times, and your child could easily step off the path you’ve carefully guided them along all these years. Those with straight and narrow friends holding their hands when you aren’t around are far less likely to make poor decisions. Adolescents want these kinds of friend in their corner — the ones who will talk them out of something stupid before they do it or make them feel like they aren’t the only one who doesn’t want to try that cigarette.

parent involvementNearly every adolescent is going to be confronted with the choice to engage in substance abuse at some point in their formative years, and the best defense against it may not lie wholly in prevention efforts. Certainly, educating youths against substance abuse and on the dangers of such is a wise choice, but it isn’t enough on its own. Drug and alcohol abuse should be a continual point of conversation in the adolescent’s household. Youths who are routinely reminded of the reasons not to compromise their health and safety in an effort to fit in with their peers are far more likely to remain abstinent from drug and alcohol use than their counterparts. Children whose parents educate them on the risks of drug and alcohol use are 50 percent less likely to engage in those behaviors than those whose parents don’t do so.[8]

The biggest prevention effort for youths is likely the D.A.R.E program. Parents, educators, and youths alike are often surprised to find out how ineffective this program has been over the years, especially considering it is still in effect. One major study confirmed that students who participated in the D.A.R.E. program were no less likely to engage in substance use across the board, from cigarettes and marijuana to alcohol and heroin.[9] The same applies to resistance to peer pressure; rates of such were the same 10 years after the D.A.R.E. program as they were prior to it.[10]

Overall, parents cannot rely on programs like this alone to prepare their child for the choices they must make in the future. The program is delivered to late elementary and middle school students with only booster classes during the high school years, despite the fact that the average time of onset for drug abuse occurs during high school. This further stresses the importance of continuing drug resistance education at home even when the D.A.R.E. program has long been over.

If your child has made new friends and begins to act out of character, such as skipping school or failing to turn in classwork, there may be cause for concern regarding their new peer group. Every measure should be taken to find out what the real problem at hand is and remedy it.

Drug and alcohol abuse comes with serious risks. More than 100 people die every day in America from a drug-related overdose.[11] Alcohol-related motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for 17-20 year olds.[12]

At Risk Youths

Peer pressure is merely one component to adolescent substance abuse. In 2012, 1,800,704 people sought treatment for a substance abuse problem in America, and 6.9 percent of them were between the ages of 12 and 17.[13] Plenty of them were predisposed to drug and alcohol abuse and displayed risk factors for such, including:
  • Parental substance abuse
  • Peer rejection
  • Child abuse or neglect
  • Undiagnosed or untreated mental illness
  • Aggressive behavior early in life
  • Friends who abuse drugs or alcohol
  • Poor academic performance
risk of addiction
Mental health is an often overlooked concern in the world of substance abuse. Most people view addiction as a problem that plagues the weak, those who make poor choices, or those who lack willpower. This stereotype is slowly being decimated by treatment facilities and professionals who know better. Approximately 29 percent of people with a mental health disorder are substance abusers.[14] Among adolescents, 38.6 percent who received treatment in 2011 and who began engaging in substance abuse prior to the age of 12 had a mental health disorder.[15]  Co-occurring substance abuse and mental health disorders can be quite difficult to treat and should not be ignored or left in the hands of anyone other than a certified and licensed professional. While parental supervision is important, a lack of it isn’t always the issue at hand that is influencing adolescent substance abuse. Plenty of teens are involved in drug and alcohol abuse, and their parents are an active force in their lives. This again points back to the need for education and communication in the family home. Sometimes there’s enough supervision, but the attitude parents take toward drug and alcohol use means much more. Teens who regularly drink with their parents are more likely to exhibit problem drinking behaviors than those who do not. Parents are sometimes the dealer, too. One in five drug addicts in treatment for their problem first used illicit drugs with their parents.[17]  The poorer the parent-child relationship, the more likely the youth will turn to peers for guidance.

Managing Peer Pressure

Youths can walk away from peer pressure. The best defense against teenage drug and alcohol abuse is a complete defense. When prepared with self-confidence, solid goals for the future, and a strong family foundation, a teen is less likely to succumb to peer pressure to abuse substances. Adolescents who have plans to attend college or a serious interest in keeping up their academic grades are less likely to engage in drug and alcohol use.

Quality academic performance provides the same protection. Among students who achieved As in high school, fewer than 10 percent smoke a half-pack of cigarettes daily, compared to more than one-third of students who earned Cs and Ds.

teen drug use usaOther protective factors include high student-teacher ratios, a supportive peer network, stable home life, and a present authority figure. Also, waiting until later in life to consume alcohol is directly correlated with a decreased risk of an alcohol use disorder. Among individuals who start drinking before they are 14 years old, 45 percent will become an alcoholic at some point in their lives, whereas only 10 percent of those who wait until they’re 21 or older to start drinking will.

In the US, 2.8 million American teenagers are using drugs or alcohol during the school day, and that can bring a lot of pressure to make an unwise decision.[20] In professional treatment, negative peer pressure is no longer a factor. Instead, the likeminded teens around your child will be encouraging them to get and stay clean. Participation in skills groups and peer support groups are known to enhance the treatment experience for teens.

Most adolescents who seek treatment go on to form lasting friendships with the others they meet during their journey. These individuals serve as the strongest type of peer group a struggling young addict could have. When treated early, most substance abuse problems do not progress into a lifetime of addiction for youths. Early intervention is essential.


[1]Teens: Alcohol and Other Drugs.” (July 2013). American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Accessed April 25, 2015. [2] Feliz, J. (6 April 2011). “National Study Confirms Teen Drug Use Trending in Wrong Direction: Marijuana, Ecstasy Use Up Since 2008, Parents Feel Ill-Equipped to Respond.” Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. Accessed April 25, 2015. [3]Negative Peer Pressure.” (n.d.). Parent Further. Accessed April 25, 2015. [4] Jaslow, R. (22 August 2012). “Survey: ‘Digital peer pressure’ fueling drug, alcohol use in high school students.” CBS News. Accessed April 25, 2015. [5] Ibid. [6]The Importance of Family Dinners VIII.” (September 2012). CASA Columbia. Accessed April 25, 2015. [7]The Partnership Attitude Tracking Study.” (4 August 2008). Partnership for a Drug-Free America. Accessed April 25, 2015. [8]Growing Up Drug-Free: A Parent’s Guide to Prevention.” (October 2012). Drug Enforcement Administration. Accessed April 25, 2015. [9] Lyam, D.R., Milich, R., Zimmerman, R., Novak, S.P., Logan, T.K., Martin, C., Leukefeld, C. & Clayton, R. (1999). “Project DARE: No Effects at 10-Year Follow-Up.” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. Accessed April 25, 2015. [10] Ibid. [11] Pollack, H. (7 February 2014). “100 Americans die of drug overdoses each day. How do we stop that?” Washington Post. Accessed April 25, 2015. [12] Palmeri, J.M. (n.d.). “Peer Pressure and Alcohol Use among College Students.” New York University. Accessed April 25, 2015. [13]Substance Abuse Treatment Admissions by Primary Substance of Abuse.” (2012). Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Accessed April 25, 2015. [14]Substance Abuse and Mental Health.” (n.d.). Helpguide. Accessed April 25, 2015. [15]Age of Substance Use Initiation among Treatment Admissions Aged 18 to 30.” (17 July 2014). Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Accessed April 25, 2015. [17] Livni, E. (August 24). “Some Parents Introduce Kids to Drugs.” ABC News. Accessed April 25, 2015. [20] Jaslow, R. (22 August 2012). “Survey: ‘Digital peer pressure’ fueling drug, alcohol use in high school students.” CBS News. Accessed April 25, 2015.

Medical Disclaimer: Next Generation Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.

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