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Losing Influence to Peers During the Teenage Years

Posted By Julie Stevens, Wednesday, December 18, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, July 22, 2014

7 Things You Can Start Doing Today to Influence and Shape This Transition

Newsflash! Teenagers are prone to thrill-seeking, trend-following, and pressuring (or being pressured by) their peers. But they are also rational decision-makers, at least when they can keep their emotions in check and are not subject to excessive stress. However, their developing brains, unlike those of adults, generally respond more strongly to social rewards and have to work harder to focus on avoiding risk.

All parents worry that their kids will engage in dangerous or anti-social behavior because of negative peer influences and/or because they want so desperately to “fit in” with whatever the “popular” kids are up to. In fact, the imperative to seek out novel experiences and to derive pleasure from being liked and accepted by peers does peak during the teenage years, confirming what parents and teachers have observed all along.

The loyalty switch...from family to peers

We might lament that as kids grow their sense of loyalty and belonging inevitably shifts from their family to an ever-expanding circle of friends and peers. But the changes that take place during adolescence – often manifested in a teenager’s passionate pursuit of new social experiences and exquisite attunement to any subtle shift in the social scene – prepare them for a healthy, productive adulthood.

In a National Geographic article, “Beautiful Brains,” David Dobbs addresses teens’ preference for the company of their peers, noting that, “…teens gravitate towards peers…to invest in the future rather than the past. We enter a world made by our parents. But we will live most of our lives, and prosper (or not) in a world run and remade by our peers. Knowing, understanding, and building relationships with them bears critically on success…no species is more intricately and deeply social than humans are. This supremely human characteristic makes peer relations not a sideshow but the main show.” (Dobbs, 2010)

"...teens gravitate towards peers…to invest in the future rather than the past. We enter a world made by our parents. But we will live most of our lives, and prosper (or not) in a world run and remade by our peers."

-David Dobbs

Maintaining beneficial influence

So the trick is to guide adolescents through this natural, often stressful, but necessary phase, and to help them capitalize on the positive aspects of peer influence.  Parents should take heart from studies that show they remain highly influential with their kids despite the growing role of peers, and that kids tend to seek out friends with values similar to their own. 

Practical ways you can influence this transition

The following suggestions for parents were drawn from the work of several influential researchers in adolescent development and peer influence:

  1. Assess and offer opinions about your child’s friendships, but start this process early and focus on the positive. Interest in who your child chooses to spend time with should be part of your ongoing engagement in her life…not the manifestation of a panicked desire to reassert control over a headstrong teenager who is choosing to hang out with the “wrong” crowd.
  1. Engage with your child’s friends. Learn about the relationships they have with their parents, what their interests are, what they have in common with your son or daughter.
  1. Encourage diverse relationships and provide opportunities for your child to have experiences working and playing with peers from different backgrounds.
  1. Be an “authoritative parent,” providing lots of warmth and support in tandem with clear expectations for appropriate behavior.
  1. Anticipate situations where peer pressure could lead to dangerous behavior (i.e., being pressured to drink at a party) and help your child develop strategies for saving face while avoiding a risky or unethical activity. Encourage your child to have a prepared response for such moments.
  1. Model positive peer relationships in your own interactions – avoid gossip, be open to experiences with a wide range of people, and share what you appreciate about those individuals who are your own enduring, close friends.
  1. Test your understanding of your child’s peer group by describing the social and behavioral characteristics of the “popular” kids and the social climate fostered by the school your child attends. Compare your perspective to your child’s take on which peers are most influential and how his school supports positive peer interaction.

Partnership with Schools

Peer interaction occurs primarily at school, rather than in the home. How can schools channel teenagers’ tendency to be influenced by peers in ways that increase positive outcomes and foster moral growth? A proven approach is developing a school climate – as experienced by the students – where every student feels the sense of belonging that is paramount in adolescent life. Parents can explore whether their child feels welcomed and included at school by asking the following questions, based on a blog post by educational consultant Anderson Williams: 

  1. Do you understand the norms and rules at school and feel that you have some role in shaping them?

  1. Do you feel accepted for who you are, and that your strengths receive as much acknowledgement as your weaknesses?
  1. Do you feel your opinions matter to your peers and your teachers?
  1. Do you feel you have the same opportunities as other students and that your opportunities match your interests and abilities?
  1. Do you feel that you can “fail successfully,” and that your efforts are respected even if your outcomes are not perfect?
  1. Are you able to banter, joke, and feel comfortable casually sharing ideas with other members of the school community?


Something to work towards… When kids are supported in promoting positive peer affiliation by their parents, their schools, and the broader community, they are better able to manage risks and make responsible choices, individually and collectively. 

Tags:  [Grade: Middle]  [Grade: Upper]  [subject: Moral Development & Character Education]  [Type: Article]  [User Group: Administration]  [User Group: Parents]  [User Group: Teachers]  belonging  child  friendship  Parenting  peers  social media 

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