Breaking Through Peer Pressure: Substances Edition

However you feel about alcohol, drugs and sobriety, you probably don't like being peer pressured! But it can happen in sly and persuasive ways. Get yourself geared up to respond

April 11, 2023
Woman guarding another player on the basketball court

One of the most common low-key concerns people have when they go sober is what to say if asked why they’re not having an alcoholic drink. In the glorious sober era of 2023, you might actually, instead, be asked what your favorite nonalcoholic drinks or favorite sober hang-outs are. More likely, no one will notice or care either way.

But the concern bubbles up anyway, from deep in the kid part of our brains: Will people think I’m different and weird for abstaining, and what happens if they try to cajole me into having “just one”? That second fear, of course, is of peer pressure: when other people try to influence your thoughts, behaviors and actions.

If you’ve banished addiction in adulthood, you probably have the wherewithal to dismiss peer pressure. But for some folks, especially younger ones, it’s not so easy, and it can create situations that are regrettable, even unsafe, especially regarding substance use. Some people even experience physical or emotional symptoms when confronted with peer pressure. But identifying and managing it can help boost the confidence needed to overcome it.

Peer pressure is often associated with risky behavior — though peer pressure can also offer a positive influence. Knowing and honoring your values is key to staying grounded and cool regardless of the actions and opinions of others. By keeping your head straight and your vibe empowered, you’ll be able to shrug off peer pressure and whatever red-flag situations it might lead to.

This can be a useful exercise in building confidence in your life: Identifying and responding to peer pressure can help you develop integrity while avoiding potentially unsafe situations.

To Be Clear … What Is Peer Pressure?

Peer pressure is usually defined as a negative influence from friends or peers urging you to do or say things out of character. Generally, peer pressure is thought of as a phenomenon of middle and high school years. But it’s possible to experience peer pressure at any age.

Peer pressure is often associated with unsafe choices and unwise decisions, the stuff of ’80s coming-of-age movies. However, there is potential for peer pressure to be positive. Positive peer pressure might promote working together or inspiring others toward greater outcomes.

Peer pressure can affect your choice of friends, what you do for fun and what (or how) you do in school. It’s worth being on the lookout for it, as it can also influence your thoughts and feelings about sex, drug and alcohol use, and other potentially risky behaviors.

Regardless of the intention of the pressurer, peer pressure can alter your choices, thoughts and actions.

How Do I Know If I’m Being Peer Pressured?

Understanding what peer pressure looks and feels like can be an ideal first step toward staying centered. You may think it’s an obvious thing, but peer pressure isn’t always, or even usually, overtly pushy or bullying. It can often be quite sly and rather persuasive!

A few examples of scenarios that suggest you may be acting on peer pressure:

Different things motivate the intentions behind peer pressure. You can’t really control those. So regardless of where your peers stand and what they say is cool, it’s important to know where you stand when you’re put in an uncomfortable spot.

Knowing that you’re making the best choice for yourself, in the long run, matters much more than the misguided opinions and judgments of others.

We’re a platform that deals with addiction and recovery — drug and alcohol stuff — so let’s talk substances, specifically, for a minute. We know that many people make mistakes when it comes to substances when they’re young, and a lot of them turn out just fine in the end. Many others prefer not to engage with drugs. Either way, you certainly shouldn’t feel like you have to get into situations you’re not on board with.

Learning and respecting your values makes it easier to navigate these situations so that you make the best choices for yourself, no matter who’s around.

Giving In Is Letting Them Win!

Potential consequences can come from following along with negative peer pressure. (It’s worth noting here that with the rise of fentanyl, often hidden in other drugs, the stakes of drug use today are higher than they were in our own school years.) If you’re starting to feel unsafe, that may actually be helpful in figuring out peer pressure scenarios — and extracting yourself from them.

Some potential responses you may have to peer pressure:

  • Feeling nervous or on edge
  • Feeling upset, angry or sad in response to pressure
  • Avoiding certain people or situations
  • Freezing up, unsure of what to do or say

Staying true to yourself can be challenging when everyone around you goes in a different direction. When you know and stick to your own goals and beliefs, you’ll have an easier time staying committed to your path.

Come Prepared: How To Stand Up to Peer Pressure (or Slip Out)

Peer pressure, unsurprisingly, often leads to poor decision-making. What to do? You have options, before, during and after the situation:

Know and Honor Your Values

Taking the time to identify your values is essential to feeling confident in your stance and staying empowered in the face of peer pressure.

Set and Respect Your Boundaries

Setting and maintaining boundaries that support your values makes it easier to avoid risky or iffy situations in the first place.

Spend Time With People Who Know and Respect You

Finding groups and activities that support your passions and goals can connect you with like-minded people who are also focused on similar goals.

Have an Accountability Partner

Or just a buddy who’s got your back. If you find yourself in social situations where you’re wary of what other people are getting up to, having an accountability partner can help you (and your buddy) stay committed to making safe and smart choices.

Speak Up for Yourself

If someone’s getting in your face about participating in activities or behaviors you don’t want to, speaking up for yourself generally … works. They’re not your boss!

Stand Up for Others

Being an advocate for yourself and others against peer pressure takes courage. However, using your voice and influence to stick up for yourself and others is a great way to stand strong.

Be a Leader Rather Than a Follower

Going back to that positive peer pressure thing: If you use peer “influence” with care yourself, you can actually inspire and uplift. Working to be your best and encouraging others to do the same is bound to have a positive effect on your world. Teams, from football to debate, understand how this works; they thrive on peer influence and harmony.

Using your connections, resources and abilities to empower yourself and the people around you is a great way to be a leader of positive change. If that means making room for sober friends or folks who’d rather opt out of substances, you may be doing something much more meaningful for someone than you even realize.

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