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Peer Pressure and Addiction

Peer pressure. We’ve all felt it. We know intuitively what it is. Finding and belonging to a peer group is a natural part of adolescence. There is a desire to belong, to know one’s place in the world, and to find an identity apart from parents and family. All of this can be normal and healthy. But obviously, it can also have detrimental results as well.

A group of researchers studying peer pressure in adolescents developed a definition of peer pressure to guide their research. They put it like this: Peer pressure is “when people your own age encourage you to do something or to keep from doing something else, no matter if you personally want to or not.”

The longing to be included can be so strong for some that moral convictions, natural fears, and common sense can all be excused, just for the sense of belonging.

So given the intense nature of peer pressure, it’s easy to see that for many, peer pressure is a huge factor in the beginnings of drug use. Many parents have been surprised to learn that their child was using drugs or alcohol or engaging in other harmful behaviors, even though they had been raised “to know better.” But in the minds of the kids, a much worse fate would be the exclusion they would feel if they rejected their peer group’s norms.

Conforming to Peer Pressure

The pressure to conform continues in all stages of life. Nobody wants to be an outcast. And though peer pressure is most commonly associated with adolescence, the reality is, anyone belonging to a group can be susceptible to peer pressure.
Most groups are not overt in their pressure. Teens are rarely bullied into poor behavior. The pressure is usually much more subtle – a dismissive glance, an invitation not sent, a group text that leaves someone out. Even if there is simply a behavior that is foreign, FOMO – the Fear of Missing Out, can kick into high gear. A Columbia University study found that kids are 6 times more likely to have had an alcoholic drink if their friends often drink alcohol.

When alcohol and substance abuse are tightly tied to a peer group, the results can be devastating. In addition to the normal effects of the substances, there can be powerful psychological forces at work. The brain begins to associate the drug use with positive feelings of community and acceptance. It’s as though the drugs have been given a turbo charge. The abuse can lead to addiction not only to the drug, but to the feelings of acceptance. It becomes a vicious cycle when more drugs are needed to keep the acceptance, to remain in the group. The addiction’s grip only tightens.

Part of recovery for those who suffer from addiction is seeing one’s self apart from the group, as an individual with inherent worth. And in a recovery situation, a positive peer pressure can kick in. For the first time, they may find him or her self surrounded by people who have set a different kind of standard for the peer group, one that upholds clean living. Fighting an addiction is scary. Fighting it alone is scarier. For many, healing can only begin when one is removed from one peer group and embraced into another.

There are steps parents can take to help their kids make good choices among their friends. Click here to see an article for practical advice for helping kids navigate some of the challenges of growing up.


1 http://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2F0012-1649.22.4.521
2 The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. National Survey of American Attitudes on Substance Abuse XV: Teens and Parents, 2010.

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