Helping your kids handle social pressure

A friend emailed me the other day with a ‘proud mummy moment’ – yes, we still have them, even with teenagers. Her 15-year-old daughter had been invited to a birthday dinner for a classmate at a swanky restaurant, followed by a sleepover at the birthday girl’s house.

Social Pressure

Image by I Woke Up Today/Flickr

Our daughters are at the age where drinking and even drugs are happening at parties, sometimes parties are unsupervised, or sometimes at sleepovers the kids will go walkabout at night.

My friend’s daughter, let’s call her K, is not at this stage.

My friend wrote:

“K was tossing up whether or not to stay in case they wanted to sneak out. So she phoned [the birthday girl] to see if there was any chance they would be sneaking out because if they did she wouldn’t be a part of it. K put it in a way that she didn’t want to be a party pooper so wouldn’t stay if that was the case. Sooo proud!”

Peer pressure vs social pressure

Teenagers, Alcohol and Drugs - Paul Dillon

Click on image above to buy this book

In his excellent book, Teenagers, Alcohol and Drugs, author and educator Paul Dillon talks about social pressure, which he says is more subtle yet more pervasive than peer pressure. In his experience, teenagers don’t really put direct pressure on their friends to drink or do drugs. But social pressure comes from advertising, from television shows and movies, from what goes on around them.

Just like we adults sometimes use excuses – such as our kids being sick – to get out of certain social situations, teenagers need ‘outs’ as well.

Paul lists some of the excuses teenagers use with peers, including:

  • I’m allergic to alcohol
  • I’m on antibiotics
  • Dad found out I drank last weekend and I’ll be grounded if I get found out again
  • Mum’s picking me up and she always checks my breath
  • Dad/my uncle has a drinking/drug problem and it runs in the family/I don’t want to be like them etc.

Helping your kids tell a lie

Paul says some kids are confident enough just to say no, but most need some help. He says parents should try to talk to their teenagers about it and offer to help them come up with some excuses or ‘outs’.

He tells a story about a teenager who had a code word she’d text to her mum when she found herself in a difficult situation she wanted to get out of. Then her mum would call and say there was an emergency and she needed to pick her up straight away. (Personally, I think a ‘change of plans’ might be a better excuse.) Used sparingly, this worked really well for the teenager, especially as she could place the blame on her mum and save face!

In another example, a group of 16-year-old boys asked their football coach to move training to Sunday mornings, to give them a socially acceptable excuse to not drink too much on Saturday nights.

In the situation relayed by my friend, her daughter used self-deprecating humour (another tactic we adults often use), calling herself a ‘party pooper’. She was also brave – bearing the responsibility herself and dealing with it in advance.

It’s pretty impressive, and I can understand her mum being proud – and quite relieved I imagine! But as Paul Dillon says, not all kids have that kind of confidence, so perhaps you could check in with your teen, or even younger children, and see if they need help coming up with some strategies, or ‘white lies’, to handle social pressure. Maybe your teenager is quite keen to try drinking at parties, but could be persuaded to delay it by learning some ‘outs’, and if your teenager is already drinking, perhaps they’d like some strategies to help them drink less.

Highly recommended by TKAAR:

Teenagers, Alcohol and Drugs by Paul Dillon [Buy now]





  1. A fantastic article, thank you. I remember having a ‘code word’ when I would call home (phone not text in those days!!) knowing that I had a safety net if ever I was in a situation where I was uncomfortable. I have even already used this technique with my son (he suffers anxiety and it is a strategy we use to help manage his worry thoughts). I agree that social pressure is much higher these days, as there is far more ‘social’ opportunity (online and offline). we need to arm our kids with options/strategies and practice them too….

    • Thekids says:

      The code word is a great idea, and you’re right, we do need to practice – if your teenager lets you :).
      I love how Paul (the author of the book) isn’t focusing on helping our kids develop the confidence to just speak their truth. Let’s face it, that’s pretty unrealistic and can take a long time, and I love that he acknowledges that it is also important for them to not feel like they are losing credibility or embarrassing themselves. Thanks for sharing your experiences too Nicky.

  2. Oh the things I have to learn about teenagers. Love the idea of providing them with an out – great idea.

    • Thekids says:

      I think it could also be a helpful tool for younger kids as well. Although when they are younger you are still able to help them learn to say no rather than make excuses.

  3. In my experience texting has made this easier, even without the code word. I have always said to my 2 teenage girls (15 & 18) that if the atmosphere at the party changes I will always come & get them, any time of the night. They have taken me up on this & I have been woken for a lift home at odd hours, me throwing track pants over the PJ’s. I am always happy to help them escape. They can try their wings then fly home to the nest having tested the water. Knowing they are developing good judgement is worth the late night car rides.

    • Thekids says:

      Yes, much harder to ask to use the house phone to call home in ‘the olden days’! It must be reassuring to know they have and will use this tactic. As you say, you see them developing good judgement.

  4. What a thought provoking post! I feel I have so much to learn about teenagers (thank goodness I have time on my side). But I don’t think it’s ever too early to start doing the research. I’m going to look up Paul Dillon’s book. Thanks for sharing !
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  5. Great advice here.

    I remember being offered drugs at school once. I guess my parents did something right because (through hammering heart) I said very nonchalantly “no thanks” – my friend replied, “no worries”. And that was the end of that.
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    • Thekids says:

      Ah, that’s interesting. So the concept of peer pressure seems to be a bit of myth. I was talking to me teenager yesterday about this and she said she has never been pressured to do anything, despite what’s gone on around her.



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