PEER PRESSURE: The Gateway Crisis
It is said that marijuana is the “gateway drug” because the fact of life is that since life is in a permanent chronological order one thing always leads to another. This then, can also be said about peer pressure. Peer pressure may be referred to as the “gateway crisis”, amongst teenagers. Theorists have proposed that adolescents who are independent from their parents become dependent on their peers and susceptible to peer pressure (Blos, 1979; Steinberg & Silverberg, 1986). This paper examines the relationship between adolescent autonomy within the family and susceptibility to peer pressure. Autonomy was measured from the teen reports, parent reports, and observed family interaction of 88 adolescents when the teens were 16 years old. Then susceptibility to peer pressure was measured from teen reports when they were 18. The study examined three aspects of family relationships that affect teens’ behavioral or social cognitive autonomy: parental control, decision-making, and conflict resolution. Results indicated that high parental control and decision-making by parents or teens alone was related to high susceptibility to peer pressure. In addition, teens whose mothers undermined their autonomy during conflict resolution were also high in susceptibility to peer influence. However teens who participated in joint decision-making were lower in susceptibility to peer influence. Overall, it was found that autonomy at age 16 could predict low susceptibility to peer pressure at 18. These findings suggest that adolescents may not move from a dependency on parents to a dependency on peers. Instead, autonomy seems to be a consistent trait over time and across different social relationships. Adolescent Autonomy with Parents as a Predictor of Low Susceptibility to Peer Pressure Peers become an important influence on behavior during adolescence. As adolescents search for identities separate from those of their parents, they experiment with new identities by participating in the different behaviors of their peers (Allen, Moore, & Kuperminc, 1995). Because they are unsure of their own identities, peer acceptance is important to many adolescents. Acceptance enables a teen to join a particular peer group and identify with the behaviors and attitudes of that group. Adolescents are often willing to conform to their peers’ behaviors in order to be accepted (Newman & Newman, 1976). Conformity may create problems, however, when peers influence each other to participate in deviant activities. For instance, several studies have revealed connections between peer pressure and substance abuse (Flannery, et al., 1994; Dielman, 1994; Thomas & Hsiu, 1993), cigarette smoking (Newman, 1984), and early sexual behavior (Duncan-Ricks, 1992; Janus & Janus, 1985). Certain teens show more susceptibility to such deviant peer pressures than others (Berndt, 1979; Wall, Power, & Arbona, 1993). Therefore it is important to determine the factors that may predict high susceptibility, in order to find ways to prevent adolescents from conforming to deviant peer pressures. Developmental theorists have offered conflicting explanations for the differences in susceptibility to peer influence among various adolescents. Psychoanalysts and other early theorists viewed the growth in peer influence as the result of adolescents’ increased emotional autonomy, which involves individuation from parents, deidealization of parents, and relinquishing of childish dependencies on them for basic needs (Douvan and Adelson, 1966). In this perspective, adolescents establish identities by detaching emotionally from the family and shifting attachments to their peers. These theorists suggested that teenagers become dependent on their peers as they become independent from their parents (A. Freud, 1969; Blos, 1979; Steinberg & Silverberg, 1986). Current researchers, however, emphasize the importance of the ongoing emotional attachment to parents as adolescents become more independent (Hill & Holmbeck, 1986; Allen, Aber, & Leadbeater, 1990). In this theory, supportive parents who encourage negotiation and self-regulation raise adolescents who think and behave autonomously (Allen, Hauser, Bell, & O’Connor, 1994). Teenagers without supportive family relationships are less likely to learn to act independently, and are therefore more likely to conform both to their parents and to their peers (Ryan & Lynch, 1989). In this perspective, susceptibility to peer pressure is related to low levels of autonomy in adolescence.The literature therefore has used two different concepts of autonomy, one based on detachment from parents (Blos, 1979; A. Freud, 1958; Steinberg & Silverberg, 1986), and one based upon close relationships with parents (Hill & Holmbeck, 1986; Ryan & Lynch, 1989; Allen, Moore, & Kuperminc, 1995). Both theories define autonomy as independent and selfregulated thought and behavior, but they differ in their explanations of the means by which adolescents reach autonomy. The two theories also offer opposite descriptions of the relationship between autonomy and susceptibility to peer pressure, although few researchers have directly compared the two variables. Steinberg and Silverberg (1986) conducted a study exploring susceptibility to peer pressure and its relationship to emotional autonomy. They operationalized emotional autonomy with a measure designed to assess ?individuation? and ?the relinquishing of childish dependencies.? The researchers used self-report questionnaires to examine certain aspects of adolescents’ relations with their parents. The participants were rated high in emotional autonomy if they demonstrated parental deidealization, nondependency on parents, individuation, and perception of parents as people. Steinberg and Silverberg also measured the participants’ tendencies to conform, by presenting them with a series of hypothetical peer pressures, and asking them how they would respond to each situation. The researchers found that the adolescents who were susceptible to peer pressure were more likely than others to be high in emotional autonomy. Steinberg and Silverberg inferred from their results that emotional autonomy from parents does not necessarily correlate with autonomous behavior with peers. They concluded that adolescence is characterized by a trading of dependency on parents for dependency on peers. Ryan and Lynch (1989), however, responded to the study by Steinberg and Silverberg (1986) with a criticism of their operational definition of autonomy. Ryan and Lynch argued that the construct of emotional autonomy did not evaluate an adolescent’s independence; instead it represented a reluctance to rely on parents and an emotional detachment from parents. They conducted a study in which they found that adolescents who were high in Steinberg and Silverberg’s measure of emotional autonomy were low in reported family connectedness and emotional security. Ryan and Lynch suggested that susceptibility to peer pressure is related to the security of attachment to parents. Teens who do not receive support and acceptance from their parents may seek such acceptance from their peers, making them more likely to conform. On the other hand, adolescents with more secure attachments to their parents are also more emotionally secure with their friends. The data from this study suggest, therefore, that a close, supportive relationship with parents can lead to lower susceptibility to peer pressure. Most current researchers agree that adolescents optimally achieve autonomy not through emotional detachment, but rather through an ongoing supportive relationship with parents (Hill & Holmbeck, 1986; Allen, Aber, & Leadbeater, 1990). Research has provided evidence in support of this position. A study by Kandel and Lesser (1972), for example, found that adolescents’ self-reported autonomy correlated with positive family interaction. Adolescents who felt that their parents granted them freedom reported fewer family conflicts than other adolescents. Autonomous teenagers also were more likely to report that they felt close to their parents, that they enjoyed spending time with them, and that they wanted to be like them. These results suggest that autonomy is related to positive family interaction rather than emotional detachment (Hill & Holmbeck, 1986). More recent studies have also supported this position (Grotevant & Cooper, 1985; Allen, Hauser, Eickholt, Bell, & O’Connor, 1994). Because of the evidence demonstrating the benefits of close family relationships in adolescence, many current theorists recognize a need to redefine the original concept of autonomy. Early research, such as that of the psychoanalysts or Steinberg and Silverberg (1986), measured emotional autonomy, or the detachment of adolescents from their parents. Today several researchers focus instead on autonomy in the context of family relationships, such as behavioral or social-cognitive autonomy. Behavioral autonomy refers to the degree to which adolescents show responsibility for their actions and regulate their own behavior and attitudes (Douvan and Adelson, 1966). Social-cognitive autonomy, on the other hand, refers to adolescents’ abilities to negotiate and compromise conflicts, express their own opinions, and appreciate differing perspectives from their own (Coser, 1975; Youniss, 1980). The past research on autonomy and susceptibility to peer pressure, however, has focused only on emotional autonomy. Few studies have been conducted examining the connection between susceptibility to peer pressure and behavioral or social-cognitive autonomy. The current study will explore autonomy in the context of family relationships, unlike the past research that focused on detachment. This study will compare susceptibility to peer pressure to three aspects of family relationships that have been shown by past research to influence adolescent behavioral or social-cognitive autonomy. The first aspect of family relationships that this study will address is parental control. Theorists suggest that one of the ways adolescents can best achieve autonomy is by gradually assuming the control previously held by their parents (Hill & Holmbeck, 1986). By having small opportunities to govern their own actions, adolescents develop a sense of self-reliance and the confidence to make autonomous decisions (Sessa & Steinberg, 1987). As teens become more self-reliant, they acquire more responsibilities, until they can eventually depend on themselves for their basic needs (Hill & Holmbeck, 1986). This increased self-regulation, responsibility, and independence are defining characteristics of behavioral autonomy (Douvan & Adelson, 1966). Excessive parental control, however, can undermine an adolescent’s development of autonomy. Teens who feel that their parents constantly try to manipulate or change them will likely have difficulty recognizing their own adequacy or trusting their own ideas (Hoffman, 1970). When parents are restrictive and unwilling to provide opportunities for teen selfregulation, adolescents learn to have neither power in their interactions with others, nor confidence in their self-worth. As a result, they fail to learn to express personal initiative or self-reliance (White, 1989). Feelings of parental overcontrol and rejection have been connected with maladaptive classroom behaviors (Emmerich, 1977), substance abuse (Wilcox, 1985; Pandina & Schuele, 1983), and peer advice seeking (Fuligni & Eccles, 1993).The current study will also examine patterns of decision-making, which is another aspect of family relationships that influence adolescent autonomy. Parents who assert unqualified control and insist on making all of the family decisions tend to raise teens who are low in autonomy (Dornbusch et al., 1985; Litovsky & Dusek, 1985). When teens have little opportunity to participate in decision-making, they do not learn to take responsibility for their own behavior or to understand their competencies (Hoffman, 1970). Eccles and her colleagues (1991) report that teens whose parents control family decisions tend to be more dependent on the support of their peers and are more likely to disobey their parents in order to be popular with their friends. Decision-making by parents alone has also been associated with low selfesteem (Litovsky & Dusek, 1985), low self-regulation (Grolnick & Ryan, 1989), and low achievement (Eccels et al., 1991), and therefore can inhibit adolescent behavioral autonomy. Decision-making by adolescents, however, can also lead to low behavioral autonomy. Parents who allow their children make all of their own decisions may not be providing all of the support and guidance that adolescents need in order to become autonomous (Eccles et al., 1991). Without proper parental supervision, teens have difficulty learning proper behavior and may therefore make inappropriate decisions. Studies have indicated that excessive adolescent decision-making is associated with teens who are impulsive and dependent (Baumrind, 1971) and more likely to participate in deviant peer activities (Simmons & Blyth, 1987).