A clear cut “no” is seldom as effective as clever beating around the bush in helping teens to resist peer pressure that gets them into trouble, a new University of Florida study has found. Middle school students who found different ways to decline social pressures were 6 1/2 times less likely to steal, shoplift, engage in fights or commit vandalism as those who relied solely on the assertive response touted by many prevention programs, said UF psychology professor Julia Graber, who did the study.
“Despite what parents say about it being important for kids to have a basic, straightforward refusal like ‘no,’ as a practical manner there’s no way any one approach can prepare adolescents for every situation that they might come up against in the real world,” Graber said. Her research is published in the November issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health.
“It may be that kids who are a bit more socially skilled and have a larger repertoire of things they’re comfortable saying have an unforeseen advantage over kids without this kind of social ease, who are locked into the traditional approach of thinking that just saying ‘no’ that will be good enough,” she said.
Graber and a team of researchers studied how 66 male and 63 female inner-city seventh-graders in New York City responded in two videotaped role-playing scenarios to pressures to smoke and shoplift. A year later, the students filled out surveys asking how many times in the past year they had committed specific delinquent acts, including vandalism, stealing and shoplifting.
Less than a fifth of the sample – 16 percent – used a variety of refusal techniques, such as offering a socially appropriate alternative, declaring their opposition to the behavior or even reversing the pressure by responding with an aggressive or sarcastic remark, Graber said. Yet those same students had lower rates of delinquent behaviors one year later, she said.
“We may be underestimating the variety of challenges adolescents are experiencing — some of which adults would probably find overwhelming – and the skills they’re going to need to deal with those different situations,” she said.
Because these are new social situations adolescents are encountering for the first time outside of parental supervision, it’s easy to forget how demanding the social pressures may be, she said.
The findings have implications for adolescent prevention programs, suggesting that the best approach to help young people deal with peer pressure is to teach them a broad range of social skills that will help them develop individualized responses to different situations, she said.
Graber said she was struck by one girl’s belligerence when offered a cigarette. “She not only said ‘I’m not going to smoke this cigarette, but you’re crazy for doing it, too,'” Graber said.
Although such a tough approach may work well with a casual acquaintance, it is not necessarily best in situations where there is a close friendship and the adolescent doesn’t want to jeopardize the relationship, Graber said. “Adults need to recognize that these relationships are very important to adolescents, and they’re juggling the demands of trying to feel accepted by their peers while navigating the challenges of adolescence,” she said.
The study participants, who were drawn from six parochial and two public schools, were a sub-sample of a randomized clinical trial designed to evaluate a school-based drug abuse and violence prevention program. Nearly half of the sample was black – 48 percent – and more than a quarter, 29 percent were Hispanic, with whites and other ethnic groups accounting for the remaining 23 percent of the sample.
Few studies on responses to peer pressure have examined urban, minority adolescents, Graber said. “One of the issues with focusing on this group is they are in an environment where they’re exposed to higher rates of aggression and violence in the community,” she said. “As a result, they may need additional support in meeting some of the challenges.”
The students were told to act out what they would do in the described scenarios. In the scene involving peer pressure to shoplift, the students were told to pretend they were at the store with a friend looking at the merchandise, especially the sunglasses, with no one else near enough to see or hear them. The role play began with the partner’s prompt, “Put these in your bag for me, they’re cool.” Regardless of the adolescent’s responses, the confederate persisted with “Come on, everybody lifts things,” “What are you afraid of?” and “Nothing’s going to happen. I do this all the time.”
However, while the studies focus on refusal techniques, adolescents who develop those skills could still feel the desire to act in anti-social ways without being pressured in a confrontational way, Graber said. “If you admire the popular kids at school and they’re engaging in problem behaviors, you may be more likely to do those things because you want to be like that person.”
David R. Shaffer, a social psychology professor at the University of Georgia, said Graber’s work is an “extremely important research topic that speaks volumes about effective adolescent socialization,” he said. “Research such as Dr. Graber’s is sorely needed to make the point that abstaining from harmful behaviors in the face of peer pressure, while always difficult, is made easier by helping teens to devise strategies for doing so.”