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Everyone talks about peer pressure on teens, but just how bad is it? Odds are, it’s not as bad as most parents think. Parents may lay awake at night worrying about what other kids will force their children to do. But "when we talk to young people, they tell us this vision of peer pressure is extremely rare," says Stephen Wallace, senior advisor for policy, research, and education of Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD).

Teens rarely strong-arm each other into trying risky things. Instead, friends play a more subtle role in your child’s decisions. Teens are more likely to hang out with other teens who do the same things. For example, a study by researchers at Columbia University shows that kids are six times more likely to have had a drink if their friends often drink alcohol.  

The good news? You can have a more powerful positive effect on your teen than you may think.

Teen Peer Pressure Often Comes From Within

Teens often feel internal pressure to do the things that they think their peers are doing. "Most kids wildly overestimate the prevalence of alcohol and drug use," says Wallace, who wrote the book, Reality Gap: Alcohol, Drugs, and Sex -- What Parents Don’t Know and Kids Aren’t Telling.

Parents who want to dispel the myth that drugs and alcohol are an adolescent rite of passage can simply cite the facts. A long-term, national study of adolescents in grades 8, 10, and 12 shows that many typical  teen behaviors are actually losing popularity. 

  • While 71% of teens have tried alcohol by the end of high school, far fewer drink to get drunk.
  • In 2010, 27% of students said they got drunk in the past year. This is down from almost 40% in 1997.
  • In 2010, 34% of students had ever used drugs and only 27% had done so within the past year. Teens who had ever used drugs peaked at 43% in 1997.
  • Close to 31% of students reported having ever smoked a cigarette, compared to almost 54% in 1991.

Certain drugs get a bad rep as their risks become more widely known. When teens think their friends will look down on them for taking a drug, they’re much less likely to use it. Unfortunately, this does not apply to drug use overall. As some drugs fall out of favor, new ones hit the scene. And it often takes years for teens to understand their new dangers.

Parents Assume You Outrank Peer Pressure

Your child can adopt a new dress code and lingo to fit in with friends, and still remain keenly aware of your thoughts and opinions. "Parents’ influence is much more powerful than most parents realize," says Tom Hedrick, founding member of The Partnership for a Drug-Free America. "Not wanting to disappoint their parents is an important barrier to teens using drugs."

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