Contending with negative peer pressure

I will never forget the moment, a decade ago, when a visibly distraught colleague, almost unsure of his steps, gingerly walked into my office.

Teary, unable to raise his head, and deliberately avoiding eye contact. Clearly at the end of his tether. He gently shook his head with a sense of helplessness. While standing before my desk, with a quivering voice he poured his heart out, “Boss, my son is toying around with drugs. And lately he has been producing an appalling set of school results.” Chronic truancy was the order of the day as his son associated with the wrong crowd and headed the list of loafers at a prestigious private school. Unfortunately, my colleague’s son had buckled to negative peer pressure.

Naturally humans crave for acceptance and approval. This makes us susceptible to bowing down to negative pressure from our peers. This mindset birthed the expression, ‘Show me your friends, and I will tell you what kind of person you are.’

Peer pressure, whether implicit or explicit, is an endemic disease that cuts across the entire spectrum of the global society. Ethnicity. Social background. Gender. Age. Emotional and intellectual development. Humans often revel at subjecting others to the pressure of following the beaten path and mindlessly bowing to potent and powerful social forces. At worst peer pressure can engulf the entire nation. And when it does, contending successfully with it becomes a phenomenal challenge. The 1941 to 1945 Hitler-led Jewish Holocaust in Nazi-Germany that resulted in the state sanctioned annihilation of about six million Jews and the 1994 Rwandan genocide that led to the heartless mass murder of about 800,000 souls in just over three months demonstrate the negative power wielded by peer pressure. These two incidents highlight the futility of leaning on the judgement of others.  Central to negativity is the groupthink phenomenon. Victims irrationally give away their sense of identity and surrender their thinking faculty, thus succumbing to groupthink. Of prime importance to these individuals is conformity; a burning desire to fit in and maintain unity within a specific group even if that is achieved at the expense of casting aside critical thinking. They’re happy to give away control of their mind to their peers owing to the inherent desire for validation and approval. Anyone with a smidgen of common sense knows how senseless it is to give away one’s right to think independently.

The intense phobia of being the odd one out often takes precedence over a rational disposition, irrespective of the dire consequences. Intoxicated with an unconscionable yearning for acceptance, some tend to forget the principle espoused in Newton’s third law of motion, that for every action, there is an equally powerful countervailing force.

Although mature individuals can be consumed by peer pressure, in most cases, at the receiving end of this pressure are adolescents and young adults. They face tremendous pressure from people who claim to love them. For these immature individuals, peer pressure manifests itself in the form of rebellion against acceptable behavioural norms and adoption of traits that are likely to ruin lives. Terrified of being ostracised and keen to stave off all sorts of derisive epithets, young ones are often happy to throw their moral inhibitions out of the window. Caught in the clutches of unacceptable behaviour-centric lifestyles and driven by a thirst for instant gratification, they are always keen to start new things. Alcohol and drug abuse. Gender fluidity. Sexual intercourse in hetero and homosexual settings. Owing to lack of job opportunities, a good number of young ones are not gainfully engaged and as the saying goes, the devil always finds work for idle hands.

How can we help our children to resist peer pressure? Parents are centrifugal cogs of influence. We’re endowed with the responsibility to keep a ‘beady eye’ on our children. They’re not fully au fait with the way the world revolves. We have a huge role in moulding their thinking and their behaviour. We need to pay more than a lip-service to this demanding role. Our effort to help them would not work if we have a fraught relationship with them. Let’s assure our children that we’re always willing to offer them guidance. That they should never shy away from engaging us. For this to happen, we need to be approachable.

The laissez-faire, hands-off and permissive parenting style that is gathering momentum nowadays is detrimental to the emotional growth of children. We need to engage them, not in a perfunctory box-ticking manner, but with a view to offering them support and guidance. Our children will draw succour from knowing they can always depend on us. If we fail to play our role diligently, our children are likely to seek guidance and validation from their immature contemporaries, a classic case of the blind leading the blind. Out of frustration, some may seek social and emotional support from untrustworthy magazines, questionable television shows and shady online sources. This could spell a disaster of unimaginable proportions.

We need to truthfully associate what is happening to our children with what we personally went through. Let’s open up and share with them the challenges we faced, and funnel into their minds the strategies we employed to contend with them. Clearly highlighting what helped us to stand our ground. Let’s teach them to have the guts to say no. By far, this outshines any riposte that can spring to mind in the face of undue pressure. Let’s share a few upbuilding anecdotes with them on when we were compelled to say no. Since this would not be a self-serving exercise, it would be wise to share our failures with them, and advise them what, with the benefit of hindsight, we could have done differently. Let’s harp on the need to set inflexible boundaries and advise them that these guardrails would be ineffectual if they are frequently overstepped. This will instill in them the practice of always assessing the risk profile of any pressure.

Not everyone is worth befriending. Let’s help our children to choose their associates wisely. This is the invaluable principle of positive discrimination. May we encourage them to pick and choose inspiring friends with a common value-system. People who would make them shine.

Let’s assure them that if they make mistakes in their choices, there is no harm in terminating worthless relationships. They need to know when to cut and run. They are endowed with a conscience. A moral compass that they are compelled to obey. Let’s advise them that they should not only do what’s right when someone senior is looking. And that getting away with wrongdoing is not synonymous with innocence.

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