So often, we hear people talk about peer pressure. Have we ever stopped to think about what peer pressure is really like today? Thirty years ago, peer pressure consisted of high school coeds being coerced maybe to skip a class to go out to lunch or possibly to sneak a smoke on the way home from school.
Today, before so many of our high school students get to their first class, they have to deal with more peer pressure than most of us adults could ever imagine. On an ordinary Monday morning, the conversations that many teenagers engage in would be shocking to most who read this column.
Students will talk about the parties they have been to, comment on the drugs and alcohol they might have experimented with and the people they were with. They will speak about the pressure they feel to comply and keep up with their neighbors. You will also hear them talk about the families who tolerate questionable behavior as well as those families who seem to be strict and hold their children accountable. You will also hear their open conversations about reckless behavior, which seems in their eyes to be commonplace and acceptable. It's amazing that we don't read about more tragic circumstances based on the concepts that are conveyed Monday mornings on most high school campuses.
The pressure they speak about cannot be simply defined. It is complicated and complex. It is woven into the fabric of every middle class child's lifestyle. It is not merely about whether teens will drink on the weekend, smoke pot or even be intimate with their girlfriend or boyfriend. It's about social choices; it's about the haves and have nots and the pressure they feel.
Daring to be different, walking the road less traveled and being your own person are phrases that this present generation rarely considers and would almost never consider embracing. If you are different, even for the right reasons, you run the risk of being hurt and made fun of. If you walk the road less traveled, your peers will taunt you and make you feel you're not normal.
Somehow, we have buried the positive urgings that encourage young people to be themselves in the rubble of living. Positive individuality is losing out to mindless compliance. It seems more important to be like everyone else rather than to be your own unique person.
Take a moment and think about that. Look at the clothing craze; look at everyone needing the same sneakers, hairstyles, body piercings and tattoos. Being unique and/or different is seen more as a liability than as a strength or gift.
Why are people so afraid to be unique, to dare to be different, to stand up, to step out and to speak out on the things that they value as important?
Self-esteem is so connected to peer pressure. If a person does not feel good about him or her self, he or she is probably going to be vulnerable to the choices of others in order to receive acceptance and human affirmation.
What kind of dialogue do you and your children engage in? Is it a conversation that is always critical and potentially destructive or is it grounded in encouragement and positive affirmation?
Our children need to be held accountable. They do not need to be demeaned or put down. Sometimes emotionally charged conversations can be more hurtful and wounding than physical confrontations.
Constructive criticism is only helpful if the person understands the exchange and does not view it as a putdown. That balance is sometimes hard to come by. As parents, we don't always realize that the tone of our voice, our gestures or our lack of awareness can be very hurtful.
JR is a senior at a local high school. At first glance, he is a bright, articulate, engaging high school senior. He does well academically and socially. However, he will admit that he projects a false image of himself. He admits that his life stinks. Most people get distracted by his charm and wit. Underneath, he is very fragile and super sensitive.
He grew up in a very dysfunctional home. His early development was marked by a lost of loss and emotional and physical violence. During his middle school years, he moved a half a dozen times. His family of origin literally fell apart. There was no structure or parental supervision. JR just wanted to be loved and included.
By high school, he was craving for inclusion and affection. He just wanted his peers to accept him. He gravitated to the wild crowd. He always felt he was on level ground with them.
To find acceptance, he would do foolish things to make his peer group like him. He would make them laugh. He thought they loved having him around, until one Friday night. They were at the mall and they decided to shoplift as a game. There were four of them. They all got caught. They blamed JR as the mastermind of their playful little scheme. Some even said he bullied them into participating.
Physically, JR is a big senior. If you did not know him, you could be intimidated by him. However, anyone who really knows him, knows how meek he really is.
So, to be blamed for masterminding their little scheme was devastating to him and so far from the truth. JR could not believe how mean and dishonest they were. He always thought they were his good friends. That encounter only furthered his belief that he was worthless. He obsessed over these feelings for a long time. Those feelings continue to affect some of the poor choices he makes. He continues to obsess over being accepted and will do stupid things to receive recognition and acknowledgement from his peers.
The threat of jail and total abandonment made him stand up and take note. It is still a struggle, but he is now starting to believe in himself and value the man he can become.
He realizes that his life is like the change of seasons. He is hoping to die to his insecurities and give rise to a new life grounded in self-confidence and respect. He is working hard to change the texture and value of his life. He wants to walk the road less traveled with conviction and not be afraid of daring to be different.
Peer pressure can be lethal if we don't challenge our children to rise above it. We must work harder at helping them develop skills to navigate a landscape that too often is selfish and self-serving.