woman being peer pressured

When ‘Peer Pressure’ Becomes Bullying

By Nicole Arzt is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist specializing in providing psychotherapy for individuals, families, and groups struggling with substance use disorders and psychiatric illnesses.

Sober Recovery Expert Author

woman being peer pressured

Recent research on bullying reveals some harrowing statistics. Between 1-in-4 and 1-in-3 American students report being bullied at school. 70 percent of students have observed bullying and most of it occurs in school, outside on school grounds, and on the bus.

Bullying isn't just a schoolyard phenomenon. It occurs at work, in social circles, in neighborhoods, and even in recovery spaces.

Young people are especially prone to these consequences.

And peer pressure, which can be much more of a 'gray area' issue, can be much harder to define—and even harder to understand. Is it just a normal part of social relationships? Is one weak if they succumb to it? And when does it actually become bullying?

What Is Peer Pressure?

Peer pressure refers to the strong influence peers have over one another. Sometimes, this pressure can be positive. For example, if someone's friends have all decided to start picking up trash at the beach, this could motivate them to start cleaning up litter as well.

However, peer pressure can also be very negative. It can often lead to people doing things they would not necessarily do on their own. Some examples of peer pressure include:

  • drinking alcohol
  • taking drugs
  • drinking and driving
  • having sex
  • cheating in school
  • restricting their food intake
  • stealing items
  • having an affair
  • cutting class
  • getting into fights

At its core, individuals give in to peer pressure because they want to fit in. They want to feel accepted within their group of friends. They fear being ostracized, criticized, or otherwise shamed if they choose to go against the norm.

Is Peer Pressure Normal?

To some degree, peer pressure can be normal. For example, during adolescence, a peak time for bullying, children individuate from their parents. Individuation is essentially the process of defining and establishing a unique identity. Adolescents look to their friends as role models in achieving this task.

Although many concerned parents worry about their child's friends, they need to remember they tend to have the most influence of all. By creating a secure and supportive home environment, they maintain a positive foundation for self-love, emotional wellness, and secure attachment.

Peer pressure also tends to be normal throughout the rest of life. As people lean on social relationships for various needs, it's reasonable that different peers have pressures and expectations.

When Does Peer Pressure Become Bullying?

Some people can be relentless in their pursuits to convince someone else to "go along with them." Peer pressure can become bullying if someone resorts to threats or verbal abuse.

For example, let's say a friend wanted his newly-sober friend to drink with him, and the friend declined. The friend laughs at him, calls him a loser, and continues to belittle him for his refusal to drink. At this point, this isn't peer pressure; it's hostile behavior, and it's a form of bullying.

Likewise, peer pressure can also cause bullying. For example, if one person in a peer group laughs at someone, others might follow suit because they think that's what they're "supposed" to do. Even if other people know it's wrong, they often fear speaking out because they don't want to turn into the victim themselves.

Managing Peer Pressure Related to Substance Use

Unfortunately, there isn't a straightforward solution for managing either peer pressure or bullying when it comes to substance use. That said, there are a few suggestions to consider.

Role-Play Various Scenarios

You can engage in various role-playing exercises to practice saying no or setting other boundaries with peers. By practicing these skills, you'll likely feel more confident to implement such dialogue if you're put on the spot.

Seek Support

Find the people who will support your efforts in recovery. They do exist, and you may need to step outside of your comfort zone to find them. Consider attending support groups like AA or NA or pursuing individual therapy.

Practice Self-Compassion

The kinder you are to yourself, the more likely you are to honor your needs, intuition, and values. When we feel insecure, we tend to give in to the demands and pressures of others more easily. Treat yourself with respect. Engage in self-care regularly. Remember that you are worth loving yourself!

Final Thoughts

Both peer pressure and bullying can have a serious impact on both addiction and recovery. Young people are especially prone to these consequences. While there isn't a quick fix, we need to keep the conversation going. And as a society, we need to continue increasing awareness and discussing better solutions for supporting people who may be struggling with these issues.

If you or someone you know is seeking help from addiction, please visit our directory of treatment centers or call 800-772-8219 to speak to a treatment specialist.

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