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Helping Your Teen Navigate Conformity Pressure

Six strategies to encourage individuality and critical thinking.

Key points

  • Conformity is a common human behavior that can hinder personal growth, critical thinking, and creativity.
  • Resisting conformity pressures requires self-awareness, dissent, diversity, and assertiveness.
  • Parents can play a crucial role in helping teens resist conformity pressures.
Martin Novak/Shutterstock
Source: Martin Novak/Shutterstock

Solomon Asch once remarked, "The tendency to conformity in our society is so strong that reasonably intelligent and well-meaning young people are willing to call white, black. This is a matter of concern. It raises questions about our ways of education and about the values that guide our conduct."

The pressure to conform is a common phenomenon in human behavior that can have positive and negative effects. However, excessive conformity can hinder personal growth, critical thinking, and creativity, leading to negative outcomes at both individual and societal levels. The pressure to conform can be particularly challenging for teenagers as they seek to fit in with their peers and establish their identities.

Conformity Research

Early studies on conformity focused on identifying the basic mechanisms underlying group influence. For example, Sherif's autokinetic effect experiment, conducted in 1935, aimed to understand how social norms are established and maintained within a group. Participants in a dark room estimated the movement of a point of light, and their estimates converged over time, forming a group norm. This experiment demonstrated the powerful influence of social norms on individual judgments.

Asch's line judgment experiment, conducted in 1951, investigated how individuals would conform to group pressure when faced with a simple task. Participants were asked to compare the length of a target line with three comparison lines. Despite the obviously correct answer, approximately 75 percent of participants conformed to the majority's incorrect choice at least once. Asch's study highlighted the significant impact of group pressure on individual decision-making.

More recent research has built upon these early studies, identifying additional factors contributing to conformity. Personality traits, self-esteem, and cognitive style can all impact an individual's likelihood of conforming to group pressure. Individuals with higher agreeableness and lower self-esteem are more susceptible to conformity than those with lower agreeableness and higher self-esteem.

Group size, unanimity, and cohesion have also been shown to influence conformity levels, with conformity increasing to a certain point and stabilizing. Additionally, collectivist cultures, which value group harmony and interdependence, tend to exhibit higher conformity levels than individualistic cultures, which prioritize personal autonomy and self-expression.

Helping Teens Resist Conformity Pressures

Given the potential downsides of conformity, parents can play a crucial role in helping their teenagers resist conformity pressures. As a parent, there are several strategies that you can use to help your teenager navigate the pressures of conformity and cultivate their individuality and critical thinking skills.

  1. Encourage self-awareness. Self-awareness is recognizing and understanding one's thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. By cultivating self-awareness, teenagers can better understand their values, beliefs, and preferences and make more informed decisions that align with their individuality. Self-awareness can enhance decision-making, improve relationships, and reduce the influence of conformity. As a parent, you can encourage self-awareness in your teenager by engaging in open communication, asking them about their thoughts and feelings, and modeling self-reflection.
  2. Encourage dissent. Dissent refers to the expression of differing opinions and perspectives. By creating an environment where dissent is valued and encouraged, teenagers can feel more comfortable challenging the status quo and offering alternative solutions. The presence of a single dissenter can significantly reduce conformity rates. As a parent, you can model this behavior by demonstrating openness to differing opinions and encouraging respectful debate and discussion. This can be done by asking your teenager for their opinion, listening to their perspective, and acknowledging their right to hold a different viewpoint.
  3. Seek out diverse perspectives. Exposure to various viewpoints and experiences can broaden a teenager's worldview and reduce the likelihood of conforming to a single viewpoint. Exposure to diverse perspectives can enhance creativity, problem-solving, and decision-making. As a parent, you can encourage your teenager to seek diverse perspectives by exposing them to varied literature, media, and cultural experiences. This can be done by taking them to museums and cultural events or encouraging them to read books or watch films that offer different perspectives.
  4. Build self-confidence. Self-confidence is the belief in one's abilities, knowledge, and judgment. By building self-confidence, teenagers can feel more secure in their decisions and be less likely to conform to group pressures or social norms. Self-confidence can enhance performance, improve relationships, and reduce the influence of conformity. As a parent, you can help build your teenager's self-confidence by providing positive feedback, encouraging them to take risks and make independent decisions, and helping them to develop skills and competencies in areas of interest.
  5. Cultivate critical thinking skills. Critical thinking involves evaluating information and arguments objectively and systematically. By cultivating critical thinking skills, teenagers can more effectively assess the validity of various viewpoints and resist the influence of conformity. Critical thinking can enhance decision-making, problem-solving, and creativity. As a parent, you can encourage critical thinking skills by asking your teenager to consider different perspectives, evaluate evidence, and challenge assumptions.
  6. Nurture assertiveness. Assertiveness is the ability to express one's beliefs, preferences, and opinions clearly and respectfully. By nurturing assertiveness skills, teenagers can communicate their beliefs and preferences more effectively, reducing the likelihood of succumbing to conformity pressures. Assertiveness can enhance relationships, reduce stress, and improve self-esteem. As a parent, you can encourage assertiveness by modeling assertive behavior, providing positive feedback, and helping your teenager to develop effective communication skills. This can be done by role-playing scenarios where assertiveness is needed, practicing active listening, and encouraging them to express their opinions and preferences.

Develop Healthy Values

The pressure to conform can make it challenging for teenagers to maintain their individuality in a world constantly trying to mold them into something else. As Ralph Waldo Emerson famously stated, "To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment." By encouraging self-awareness, dissent, diverse perspectives, critical thinking skills, self-confidence, and assertiveness, parents can help their teenagers resist the powerful influence of conformity and develop healthy values while navigating social settings.

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