Difference Between Peer Pressure and Peer Influence

For years, parents have heard about peer pressure and how dangerous it can be to and for our children. We may have been putting too much emphasis on this given how peer influence affects our kids! So what is the difference between peer pressure and peer influence? For the answer, we looked to one of our favorite experts. Here is how he explained the difference to us.

Until recently, the only time in my life I went gambling was with my buddies during my first year of teaching.  I was asked to play “penny poker,” and was told to bring a bunch of pennies, nickels and dimes.  Even though it was thirty years ago, I vividly remember what happened that night.  I turned over a Queen, and bet all of my change that the next card would be lower than a Queen.  That card was an Ace and I instantly became really angry.  Even though I did not lose much money, I was done with gambling–forever!

Then, this past November I took my friend to a University of Pittsburgh football game and we decided to eat lunch at the new first class Rivers Casino buffet.  I knew Bill had been to casinos before and gambled a bit, but gambling on this occasion was not even discussed.  We arrived 20 minutes before the buffet opened, and Bill found his favorite game of chance, the poker slot machines.  Bill played a couple of games, and showed me how Texas hold ’em worked.  Well, within ten minutes I lost $20.

Peer Pressure


Question:  Did Bill pressure me to play Texas hold ’em?  Was that an example of peer pressure? No, it was not peer pressure.  Bill didn’t:

a. Say,  “Play the slots or I won’t go to any more Pitt games with you.”
b. Say,  “Stop being a wimp.”
c. Say,  “You don’t have much money, so you can’t lose much; you might even win!”
d. Even ask me if I wanted to gamble.

I gambled because my friend’s enjoyment of modest gambling influenced me to want to try  it.  I was with someone who was willing to lose $20, so I was willing to lose $20.

The point is peer influence is a bigger issue than peer pressure. This is not to say that kids are not susceptible to peer pressure, but far more kids will choose to engage in behavior just because the people they are with are doing it.  Nobody has to say a word because nobody wants to be different.  Sometimes these situations are fairly harmless and sometimes they are very risky.

Peer pressure usually occurs in one of the following ways, as depicted in a,b,c,d above:

a.  Rejection
b.  Put down
c.  Reasoning
d.  Unspoken (often a better fit with peer influence)

Does peer pressure exist in the teen culture?  Yes, but it is not as problematic as many adults think it is.  If my high school daughter was leaving home to go to a school dance and I said,  “Now darling, don’t let anybody pressure you into doing something you don’t want to do,”  she would look at me like I was a dork.  We would create a problem, because we need credibility with our kids.  This approach is unrealistic because:

1. The teen culture is values neutral.  This is no right and wrong. Kids say, “That’s his choice.” Hooking-up isn’t wrong, cheating isn’t wrong, Chris Brown beating girlfriend Rihanna isn’t wrong.
2. In most cases, it is not cool to pressure someone into doing something.
3. To allow yourself to be pressured into doing something lowers your
status within the peer group.  Kids who party have respect for   students who don’t party.  If a clean cut kid gets drunk, he will lose  the respect of many others.

As I see it, there is peer pressure in three areas:

1. Kids pressure each other to have sex.  Guys pressure girls, guys pressure  other guys (a macho thing), and girls pressure other girls (misery loves company).
2. Kids who are not comfortable with themselves or with their standing in the peer group can be pressured into doing things in an effort to improve their standing in the group.
3.  Kids will pressure other kids if they need help doing something wrong.
(“Tell Mrs. Jones that you needed my help setting up for the  assembly.  I need you to tell her I was with you.”)

Peer Influence

The toughest pressure we face is the pressure we put on ourselves.  We want to fit in, be well-liked, be popular, be funny, and we don’t want to be different or be made fun of.  It is also possible we’re being influenced because we are curious.

peer pressureTeen surveys support what I am saying.  Only 35% of teens report that they ever were pressured to do something by a peer, or pressured one of their friends.  However when asked, “Have you ever done something that you knew was wrong to possibly avoid being teased,” 50% said yes.  Internal pressure is greater than external pressure.  It is a fact of life that our peers influence our choices regardless of age, just as I was influenced to waste $20 gambling.  Teens are influenced to wear certain clothing, watch TV shows, get Facebook, and join peer groups.  Negatively, they are influenced to drink alcohol and have sex.

Helping Our Kids Make Good Decisions

1. We need to strengthen our children as they mature by:

a. Teaching our kids that they have the right to say no and they need to be  comfortable saying no. Their first obligation is to themselves.
b. Respecting their boundaries– when they say “Please stop nagging me”;  “OK mom, you can stop now”;  “I don’t want to invite him to my birthday party–it is my birthday,” we have to respect them.
c. Acknowledging their feelings and letting them express their feelings  (they are welcome to be mad, but they cannot mean).
d. Enhancing their uniqueness (they must realize they are their own  person, with strengths, needs, values and beliefs).
e. Supporting them as they struggle with making decisions; but we need to allow them to make decisions so they learn to make good choices.
f. Saying, “Just because somebody thinks something is right for them  doesn’t mean it is right for you.”

2. As they grow up, stress the importance of making friends with good people  (loyal, trustworthy, moral).
3. Prepare them for all new situations (trips to the mall, school dances, and walking to Starbucks after school are examples).  As the military motto states, Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance.
4. Focus on earned self-esteem. If our kids want to feel good about themselves, they have to earn that right.
5.  Every now and then when the opportunity presents itself, say “Don’t forget Janice, cool is when you don’t care if you are cool or not.”  This axiom is true!
6.  We all are influenced by our peers.  We need to discuss the influences that are harmful and against our values/morals, but not fight about the small things in life that aren’t harmful (crazy hair, going with the guys to play paint ball).
7. Discuss with our kids that just as there is negative peer influence/peer pressure, there is positive peer influence/pressure.  Great kids create their own norms and doing immoral or unhealthy things would cause them to be rejected from the group.  But just as importantly, we want our kids to be comfortable being vocal leaders with their friends and to speak up as soon as someone mentions doing something wrong.  Display leadership.

“Joe, we’re not doing that.”
“Don’t be mean to Kyle; he’s odd but he doesn’t hurt anyone.”
“Carrie, I am not smoking and neither are you.”

*** The first response spoken by a peer after a teen suggests something harmful, unhealthy, immoral or illegal is very critical. If someone supports the lousy idea, there is a good chance things will proceed in that direction. But, if a teen with character and strength opposes the idea, there is a good chance the bad idea will be seen as such. Most kids are hesitant to speak up, but all it takes is for one kid to say no for others to agree.

Alan Carson is an ACPI® Coach for Parents specializing in adolescence. Alan has been a career educator, working with teens in his role as a teacher, guidance counselor and basketball coach. He just completed his first book, Before They Know It All: Talking to Tweens and Teens About Sexuality, with the goal of improving sexuality education. Alan is the father of a high school senior.  Alan’s website is http://www.coachforparents.net


  1. This article is a treasure, I’ll print and re-read it later when my mind is clear. My 11 year old daughter is facing so many issues that I did not deal with until I was 16 or 18!

  2. Thank you for this article. The world has changed so much since I grew up in the 60’s, I really need all the advise I can get!

    Shannon, TX

  3. Something worth mentioning here, I think: some kids are often needlessly harsh on themselves here. So, when faced by a question like “Have you ever done something that you knew was wrong to possibly avoid being teased?” they may answer in the positive without necessarily explaining what it was that they did. Sometimes they stuff they feel guilty about may not be worth the guilt, so I guess parents need to keep this in mind before they blow up.

    Who am I kidding, it is I who need to keep this thought in mind!

  4. This came at a perfect time! My daughter and I were discussing this on the way to school this morning. She is the “leader” type and will speak up in most instances but I know how strong peer pressure/influence can be. I pray that she stays true to herself and sets the example for others. I’m going to share portions of this with her. Thank you!

  5. Yesterday, my son came home from school, saying someone else pushed him down & started kicking him. (He is not small or timid, and has not been bullied before.) He told me he “had witnesses” for when they went to the principal’s office. I told him that is nice, but why didn’t they help? He said one boy ran to the teacher’s office, but my son was even afraid to defend himself because he didn’t want to get in trouble. I am amazed that 4th graders stand & watch a friend get beaten up (with no prior history with the other child who said, “Oh, sorry. I thought you were someone else,” afterwards). I believe if one would have hollered at the other child to stop, or stepped in, it would have made a huge difference. Thank you for your article.

  6. I appreciate this wise advise. It is scary raising kids these days…

  7. Great advice! I have some issues right now with whom my 14 year old son is choosing for his friends. He’s never had a lot of friends and is not an athlete or the brainy type, so he’s ended up with a group of kids that I’m just now sure about! I’m happy for him that he’s feeling some social confidence because he’s now part of a group, but not so happy about the group. These are kids who regularly goof off in class (he thinks they’re funny) and who don’t take school too seriously. We’ve allowed him to have these boys over on occasion which has allowed us to get to know them a bit. They’re not “bad” kids, and I actually think my son is a good influence on them. I would, however, prefer for him to have positive peer influence himself! I know you can’t pick your kids friends, but I’m not sure how to proceed with this!

    • Connie:

      I believe you have a dilemma on several fronts. First, if your son has had trouble becoming part of a peer group, it would be unkind, critical and counterproductive for you to say, “You need to get new friends.”

      Second, how to handle it if your son starts going downhill. I think I would say,”Joe, I am glad you have made friends- that must feel great. I hope they are good friends, but in the event they start mischief I trust you will be a positive influence on them versus them being a negative influence on you. Either way, we’ll hold you accountable if bad things happen when you are with them. There will be no excuses, so make good choices.”

  8. Jo-Anne Layton says:

    The topic is a HOT one! “As the Twig is Bent – So the Branch is Inclined!” as the saying goes. Childhood experiences really set the tone for their adulthood … but most kids don’t realize this – and even parents & other influential people in their life often don’t fully appreciate the long-term effects of “Influences” in childhood.

    This dialogue-style writing is intimate and to-the-point – tailored for Today’s children & parents!

    I will be passing this on to others – including a friend who is developing a website for Personal Safety of Women & Children: PREVENTION THE PRIORITY (PTP Group). Trained & Informed thinking & reasoning ability is the First Line of Defence in Keeping our Kids Safe!

    KUDOS to Allan Carson!! Keep on Keeping On – Your Services ARE needed!

  9. G. De Rozario says:

    Thank you for explaining the distinction between peer pressure and influence. I teach children lifeskills in schools and find that very useful. One thought from that difference is that saying to our teens – “Don’t let anyone pressure you into doing something you don’t want to do.” – may not be a good thing because if peer influence is at play, they just might ‘want to’ and so see nothing wrong with their actions. In preparing for a sexuality talk, I found a survey for my c’try: 59% of boys and 39% of girls who engaged in sex did so out of ‘Curiosity’ and many would have probably fallen into this category of ‘being influenced’.

  10. Wow! This article is thought provoking. Being one who works with students who have social understanding challenges, I think the peer pressure/self pressure idea is so valuable. Thanks for getting me thinking. I will definitely share this with my students and parents.

  11. Michelle says:

    Wow! This article is excellent! The insights are pointed and practical! I actually felt the truth of that the ideas you expressed resonate within me – it was as if my heart was nodding along as I read. Thank you for sharing this wisdom! I definitely want to reread this article again and again!

  12. Robin N. says:

    I have saved this article for re-reading in future years. My son is headed for Middle school next year and seems even now to be so afraid of being teased (even about the lunch items he brings daily to school) andof being non-cool in some way. I remember my being concerned with these things when I was this age, too. I was so overly concerned about what others (peers) thought of me. What a burden to carry!!!!! I wish he could truly believe your point about true coolness being when one isn’t concerned about whether others think one is cool or not!!
    Thanks for writing this, and I’m glad to be introduced to your wise writing to us parents!

  13. This article hits home with our family. We have a wonderful, caring 14 year old who has alway been slightly socially awkward. Recently he has befriended a group of older teens who smoke, drink, and misbehave in school. We have always stressed that we hold him responsible for his actions, and that we expect him to be honest with us.
    We have struggled to decide if we should lead him away from his “friends” or just remind him that his choices are his own. We decided to let him have his social group as long as he continues to make responsible decisions he will be given the freedom to make choices, because we trust him. As parents we all make choices and pray that they work out in end.