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June 20, 2013

How peer pressure helps teens grow up

Daily Briefing

Peer pressure has long been thought of as a negative influence on teens, but experts now believe that it is at the center of an important developmental step into adulthood, the Wall Street Journal's Shirley Wang reports.

According to Temple University psychology professor Laurence Steinberg, peer influence is a normal part of adolescence. Susceptibility to peer pressure tends to peak around age 15, but teenagers learn to start setting boundaries with peers by age 18.

Beatriz Luna, a development cognitive neuroscientist at UPMC, adds that it is "adaptive to have a [biological] system that encourages you to start exploring outside the home, to start making your new own peer circles."

Why teens are more susceptible to peer pressure

Luna notes that researchers used to think that teenagers were quick to succumb to peer pressure because they did not have fully developed frontal lobes, the portion of the brain responsible for decision-making and intricate cognitive tasks.

However, a growing body of research suggests that teens are particularly vulnerable to peer pressure because they get greater pleasure from behaviors they experience as rewarding. The feeling of being liked by other people causes a rush of neurotransmitters in the teenage brain, Luna says.

Helping teens learn to overcome peer pressure

Although teenagers learn to overcome peer pressure as part of their neurological development, parents can take steps to avoid the negative consequences of its influence, Wang writes. 

For example, "authoritative parenting" that is warm but sets strict boundaries tends to foster the development of independent thinkers who might be less susceptible to the influence of their peers.

However, parents should learn to let their kids stand up to them, too. "If you're the kind of parent that raises your children with the 'do it because I said so' approach, you're raising a child who's going to be more susceptible to others saying, 'Do this,' " Steinberg says.   

In addition, parents can talk to their children about overcoming peer pressure and how to handle situations where it might arise and encourage bad behaviors (Wang, Journal, 6/17).

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