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Understand peer influence to prevent childhood drinking
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Circles of influence

When we imagine childhood peer pressure, we often imagine kids saying things like “Come on, I dare you!” or “It’s no big deal, try it!” However, most kids and teens will say that their friends do not and would not pressure them in this way. Research agrees. Among teens who do use alcohol, tobacco, or drugs, few say that their friends pressured them to do it. However, friends do still have a strong influence on children's actions, and parents need to understand how it works to keep it from becoming a problem for their child.

Think about your own "social circles"

Social circles influence us all. How you behave or dress at work might be different than at a lunch with friends, at a workout, or with your spiritual community. It’s human nature to change our behavior so that we fit in. And we make these changes without even thinking about them and because we want to – not because others pressure us! We are letting ourselves be influenced, but we are not directly pressured by anyone.

Children's Circles of Influence

Circle of Influence #1: Family

Throughout childhood, the family is a child’s main social circle.

Q. What if my child belongs to a social circle with kids who are allowed to sip alcohol?

This will likely change what your kids learn about alcohol and may influence children’s attitudes about trying alcohol. If this new attitude is followed by an opportunity to sip alcohol, the risk of trying alcohol increases greatly.

Even though direct pressure from friends to try alcohol is not common, it is common for situations to come up where children have the opportunity to taste alcohol. If this happens with friends and without adults around, the chances go up that children will decide to drink alcohol.


Children often do things with friends they would be much less likely to do by themselves, and they might think drinking will help them fit in.

By the numbers: 
Joining social circles


Age at which children begin comparing themselves to other children (1)


Age at which children begin to identify strongly with groups of kids and begin comparing groups they belong to with groups they don’t (2)


Age at which children are able to take into account what other people might be thinking. This includes considering what other kids might be thinking about them (3)

A game to practice alcohol communication

According to the experts, the best way to tell a friend you don't want to do something is to say no, say why, and suggest something else. This game helps children say no to peers who are encouraging behavior that parents don't allow. Communication experts confirm that practicing saying hard things makes you much more likely to say them when you are in a real situation.

Say no
Say why
Suggest something else
A few tips for playing the game

Use these three examples to get started:

Try saying no in these three situations: 

  1. At a friend's house

  2. At a party

  3. At a family event


Talking with your child about friends

Q: Are my children too young to be talking about friends and alcohol?

By talking with your child about friends and alcohol, you are letting them know that you are connected and paying attention. This alone can help protect your child from going along with friends who want to try alcohol and helps them learn your values before they hear about alcohol from friends.

About a third of families do allow 8- to 10-year-old children to sip alcohol, so your child could have friends who are already tasting alcohol at home. Even if none of your child’s friends have had alcohol yet, you are preparing your child to deal with future situations that involve opportunities to try alcohol with friends.

Three key communication skills

Use these three key communication skills to talk to your children about friends and alcohol. Picking up good communication skills now means you'll be ready to talk about these issues now and as your child gets older and wants more independence and privacy.

Communication strategy #1: Show that you are listening

Listening is even more important than talking! By listening, you learn what your child really thinks – about alcohol, school, and all sorts of issues. And, you show your child that you really want to know what they think. These are some easy ways to let your child know that you are listening:

  • After your child says something, repeat in your own words what they have just said, also known as “reflective listening.” You might say, “It sounds like you’re mad at him for taking your book,” or “I guess you really didn’t like it when she said that.” It works because your child will really know that you are listening.

  • Avoid interrupting or thinking about what you are going to say while your child is talking. This can be difficult, because children take longer to put their feelings into words, and you might be tempted to help them express their thoughts more quickly. Instead, relax, make eye contact, focus on what your child is saying, and nod your head or say something like, “I see” or “Uh huh” to show you are listening.

  • Stop what you are doing to focus on your child – even if it is just a few minutes. If you can’t stop in that moment, set a time to talk later.

  • Show your child that you are serious about listening by giving your child your full attention. Turn off the TV, close the computer, and ignore other distractions.

Friends References


  1. Yee, M. D., & Brown, R. (1992). Self-evaluations and intergroup attitudes in children aged three to nine. Child development, 63(3), 619–629. 

  2. Yee, M. D., & Brown, R. (1992). Self-evaluations and intergroup attitudes in children aged three to nine. Child development, 63(3), 619–629.

  3. Flavell, J. H., Green, F. L., & Flavell, E. R. (1993). Children's understanding of the stream of consciousness. Child development, 64(2), 387–398.​

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