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How to Handle Peer Pressure

The desire to fit in and feel like you are part of a group is normal, and most people feel this way sometimes, especially in the teen and young adult years. Peer pressure, that feeling that you have to do something to fit in, be accepted, or be respected, can be tough to deal with. It can be overt (i.e., friends telling you to do something) or less direct (e.g., friends joking around about your not doing what they are doing, seeing others at a party doing shots and feeling left out if you don't, knowing a friend tried LSD and feeling curious about it). While peer pressure can be helpful at times (e.g., recognizing that your friends are studying more than you are as a motivator for you to work harder, noticing that your drinking is more extreme than your friends' and deciding to cut back), it can also cause you to do things you may not be sure about, or even things that you don't really think are right for you. Dealing with this pressure can be challenging, but it’s important to reflect on your own personal values and preferences and make decisions based on those rather than on peer pressure.

Manging peer pressure is usually not that difficult if you are only surrounded by people whose values, preferences, and behaviors are similar to yours. However, in a college environment, it's very likely that you will meet people with a wide variety of attitudes and behaviors. At times, it may feel easy to know where you stand and act accordingly, but at other times, you might feel confused, pressured, or tempted to act against your own judgment. What's more, college may be a time when you are away from home and family with more freedom to make your own choices than before. You might even feel a desire to do things your family doesn't do or doesn't think are OK as a way to establish your own identity and try new things. Again, it's important to reflect on what you think is important, your values, and who you want to be. It's also good to try and think ahead to potential consequences of an action. If you go with the crowd and do something you might not have considered before, what will happen? Could there be a negative outcome? Could you feel bad about yourself for acting against your values or judgment? All important considerations!

When it comes to pressures around alcohol and other drug use, something else to think about is that most students overestimate how many of their peers drink or use drugs. The truth is that many fewer college students drink or use drugs than people assume. It's similar with sex and "hooking up"—most students have a skewed idea of what others are doing. Knowing the facts can help you to resist pressures based on the idea that "everyone is doing it" and that you must party to fit in.

When faced with overt or indirect pressure to do something you're not sure about, try using the following strategies:

  • Give yourself permission to avoid people or situations that don't feel right and leave a situation that becomes uncomfortable. Work on setting boundaries. It's OK for you to do what is best for you.
  • Check in with yourself. Ask, "How am I feeling about this?" "Does this seem right to me?" "What are the pros and cons of making this decision?"
  • Recognize unhealthy dynamics: It's not OK for others to pressure, force, or trick you into doing things you don't want to or for others to make threats if you don't give in. It's not OK for others to mock, belittle, shame, or criticize you for your choices. You can ask others to stop these behaviors, or you can choose to avoid spending time with people who act in these ways.
  • Spend time with people who respect your decisions and won't put unfair pressure on you to conform.
  • Remember that you can't (and don't have to) please everyone or be liked by everyone. This can be hard to accept, but it helps to try.
  • When people or situations that make you feel pressured are not avoidable, try the "delay tactic": Give yourself time to think about your decision instead of giving an immediate answer: "Let me think about that," "Can I get back to you?" or "Check back with me in an hour."
  • When you can't avoid or delay a pressure-filled situation, practice saying "No thanks" or just "No!" If "no" feels uncomfortable, practice using other responses, such as "Not today," "Maybe another time," or "Thanks, but I can't."
  • It's OK to use an excuse if the truth is too challenging. For example, if someone offers you a drink and you want to say no but feel awkward, say you're on medication or have to get up early the next day.
  • Take a friend who supports you along if you are going to be in a pressure-filled situation and let them know what your intentions are (e.g., "I don't want to drink, so if you see me about to, remind me that I wanted to stay sober").
  • Stand up for others when you see them being pressured. "Bystander intervention" (stepping in to help out when you see someone in trouble) can be an effective way to support others and send a message. If you don't feel comfortable directly confronting the person doing the pressuring, try distracting them or inviting the person being pressured to do something else (e.g., "Hey, come to the ladies room with me" or "Let's go over there and take a selfie").
  • Ask for advice or support from a parent or other trusted family member, a clergy person, a mentor, or a counselor if you need it.