Dad, Peer Pressure Can Be Really Bad

Last week both of my kids were introduced to a video on peer pressure. It wasn’t formally part of the virtual school learning, but it was included in a program that their classrooms use. Shortly after watching a movie where a character is “drunk” my daughters gave me a lesson on peer pressure. It started with, “Dad, peer pressure can be really bad.” The lesson was great, but it didn’t include anything on how peer pressure provides an opportunity for learning and growing. So after they were done teaching me we had a conversation on exactly that.

Peer Conflict from Social Pressure Can Build Self-Regulation Skills

Developmental Psychologist Dan Siegel, as well as the research of Stuart Shanker, have talked and written extensively on emotional self-regulation. They both reference the analogy of a window of tolerance. In each of their work, the window has a center region, upper region, and lower region. The center region is the green zone. When we are emotionally in the green zone we are regulated. We feel balanced and calm. When children are very young, the window of tolerance is small. They depend on adults to keep them in the green zone. This is because they easily experience fear, frustration, confusion, and other forms of distress. These lead to the foundational brain responses of fight, flight, freeze, or faint. Siegel says that fight and flight are the top region above the green zone. It is the red zone. Freeze and faint is the bottom region and color-coded as blue. It is relatively easy to witness the transition from the green zone to the red zone or green zone to the blue zone in young children. For example, a child is playing happily with a toy. Then another child takes the toy from them. The child feels negative and responds by either of the entering the red zone and taking part in fighting (in its numerous manifestations) or fleeing by backing away and crying. Alternatively, they enter the blue zone and do nothing or completely shut down.

As children age, they become more capable of using strategies to resolve the situation without going into the red zone or blue zone. They may feel negatively initially, but when provided with the opportunities such as peer conflict caused by social pressure, they learn the skills and strategies to get back into the green zone on their own. As children get older, they often develop strategies to feel like they’re in the green zone.

A caveat I added in our conversation reference the bucket analogy. If a person has experienced trauma (a cracked bucket) then it can be very difficult to learn strategies that keep their bucket full, or at the very least not let it empty. They may need much more practice and much more time to develop strategies.  

Social Pressure as a Means to Learning How to Stay in the Green Zone

My daughters are six and nine therefore socially, and in many respects biologically different in the way they experience social pressure and conflict. My six year old experiences social pressures and conflict in the developmental range of early childhood whereas my nine year old is in the developmental range of middle childhood.

Early childhood provides endless opportunities to experience social pressure and conflict. In early childhood, the more influential pressure and conflict actually comes from adults rather than peers. In most cases, adults have the intention of using social pressure and conflict to keep a child safe. In the process, they are also teaching young children how to be a person who will have a sense of belonging in the social groups (immediate family, extended family, place of worship, and community circles). Adults pressure children by introducing them to beliefs, values, norms, roles, sense of right and wrong, and perception of good and bad by encouraging (forcing) them to participate in traditions (birthdays, holidays, perennial activities, celebrations of life), rituals (eating, sleeping, hygiene), and cultural events (sports, festivals, museums, vacations). These are an introduction into what it means to feel positive and be in the green zone.

When children enter middle childhood in individualistic cultures, like most of the United States they begin to transition into building a sense of belonging with peers. Social pressure and conflict are facilitated by peers rather than adults, but they serve the same purpose. In middle childhood, children begin to participate in new traditions, rituals, and cultural events which pressure them to conform to the beliefs, values, norms, etc. that make them feel like they belong with peers. However, most often they are still tethered to adults. Throw in the early impact of puberty and the adults’ progression through human development and the outcome can lead to an unstable set up for a treacherous adolescent/adult relationship. This creates havoc on children’s understanding of what it means to feel in the green zone.

In middle childhood, instability and constant wavering between the blue, green, and red zones give birth to early divisions between adults with children. The divisions engender relationships that begin to intensify the red zone or blue zone and the ability to use strategies to stay in the green zone is elusive. In so happening, children succumb to their perception of the strategies they think keep their peers in the green zone to develop new strategies that make them feel like they are in the green zone. That may be grounded in adult structured social activities such as sports or an extracurricular club inside or outside school that put ownership and power into the hands of children where the traditions, rituals, or cultural events are novel, but reinforce prior beliefs, values, and norms. But, for better or worse this does not happen and children are peer pressured into behaviors that make them feel like they belong with peers, while at the same time separating them from adults.   

What My Kids and I Concluded

Peer pressure is something every child and adults experience. It’s important to recognize common situations where peer pressure impacts negative choices that can be harmful such as smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, having sex, stealing, or not working hard in school. When we encounter those situations or situations similar to those we need to stop, breath, and recognize how we are feeling and what we are thinking about our sense of belonging. We must ask ourselves if we are in the green, blue, or red zone. If we are in the blue or red zone we should remove ourselves and, whether you are in early, middle, or late childhood find an adult or trusted friend to talk to about the situation and think of safer ways to get back into the green zone.

After the discussion, I felt a mix between satisfied and cynical. I recall many experiences with peer pressure as a child. Would the strategies they learned about in their video and we discussed have been effective for me? I think yes, but I wish I would have known more strategies to get back into the green zone. Will they be effective for my kids? Yes, but I must continue to foster their self-regulation and support their interest in things, such as sports or extracurricular activities that get them back into the green zone when they are struggling to regulate themselves. Peer pressure is inevitable, but negative outcomes are not. All kids will make mistakes when engaging with peers, and as a parent I cannot possibly prepare for those mistakes. The better we all are at self-regulating, the more likely we are to learn from the mistakes, adapt to social pressures, and continue to grow without negative consequences for “bad peer pressure.”