Despite having left high school, college students often feel the pressure to engage in risky behaviors to fit in. What is the difference between peer pressure in high school and peer pressure in college?
Peer pressure is mostly about a person’s perception of their relationship with other people. Often, people feel pressured to engage in certain behaviors because they are trying to play a role in their friend group, are trying to establish an identity amongst others, or are trying to avoid conflict in social situations. All of this has to do with being concerned with how others perceive you, as opposed to focusing on how you want to behave.
Peer pressure in college is different mostly because the social situations are different: unfamiliar people, new setting, few boundaries, and no parents to report in to at the end of the day.
A firm “no, thank you” does work in most situations. But the reason people struggle with that is because we overestimate the possible negative reactions to the “no” and underestimate the potential consequences of the “yes.”
When not in a pressure situation, most children and young adults can see that this is backwards, but under pressure we become preoccupied with the social consequences. That’s because for all of us, and especially children and young adults, the most important thing is how their relationships are going. It is very difficult to just say no when we feel like a no might cost us our social standing.
College is about learning, growing and making decisions. Some of those decisions are well thought out; others are more impulsive. This is normal and often is less about peer pressure and more about the college student trying out different ways of being.
We recommend parents talk to their children about the types of pressures the child anticipates in college and the types the parent anticipates. Then keep that dialogue open, referring back to it. Has any of it happened? Did their response surprise them? Any new pressures no one anticipated? Try to do this without telling them how to respond to the pressure. That way the student knows you trust them, even though they will be faced with these challenges.
It’s important for schools to do two things: 1) Give students the resources and support to build self-confidence and learn about the problems associated with risky behaviors, and 2) Provide opportunities for social engagement where students can feel free of risky behaviors.