Caution: Bumps Ahead (Preparing for Adolescence)

James Dobson, Ph.D.


A team of doctors decided to conduct an experiment to study the ways in which group pressure influences young people. To accomplish this, they invited 10 teenagers into a room and told them they were going to evaluate their “perception” in order to learn how well each student could see the front of the room from where he sat.

The doctors said, “Were going to hold up some cards at the front of the room. On each card are three lines — Line A, Line B and Line C — each of a different length. In some cases Line A will be the longest; in other cases Line B will be the longest, and in still other cases Line C will be the longest. When we point to the longest line, please raise your hand to show that you know it is longer than the others.” They repeated the directions to be sure everybody understood and then raised the first card and pointed to the top line.

What one student didn’t know was that the other nine had been secretly informed earlier to vote for the second longest line. In other words, they were told wrongly.

The doctors held up the first card and pointed to Line A, which was clearly shorter than Line B. At this point, all nine students cooperated in the scheme and raised their hands. The fellow being studied looked around in disbelief. It was obvious that Line B was the longest line, but everybody seemed to think Line A was longer. He later admitted that he thought, “I must not have been listening during the directions. Somehow I missed the point, and I’d better do what everybody else is doing or they’ll laugh a me.” So he carefully raised his hand with the rest of the group.

Then the researchers explained the directions again: “Vote for the longest line; raise your hand when we point to the longest line.”

It couldn’t have been more simple! Then they held up the second card, and again, nine people voted for the wrong line. The confused fellow became more tense over his predicament, but eventually he raised his hand with the group once again. Over and over he voted with the group, even though he knew they were wrong.

This one young man was not unusual. In fact, more than 75 percent of young people tested behaved that same way. They sat there time after time, saying a short line was longer than a long line! They simply didn’t have the courage to say, “The group is wrong. I can’t explain why, but you guys are all confused.” Only 25 out of 100 had the courage to take their stand against the group. This is what peer pressure does to an insecure person.

Another interesting characteristic was revealed by this study. If just one other student voted for the correct line, then the chances were greatly improved that the fellow who was being studied would also do what he thought was right. This means that if you have even one friend who will stand with you against the group, you probably will have more courage, too. But it’s pretty difficult to take your stand alone.

Think About the Problem

Now let’s think about some important questions. Why will this subject of conformity be important as you go into the adolescent years? Can you see any reason why peer pressure could be dangerous? Do you see any ways it could get you into trouble a little later? How does conformity hurt you right now? How does it keep you from doing what is right? How could it interfere with your life?

The reason conformity is so dangerous is that it can cause you to do things that you know are wrong. This is what happens when you don’t have the courage to be different from your friends.

You should think about these issues before you face a crisis with your friends. Recognize the fact that they are under the same peer pressure that you feel. They’re tempted to take drugs or smoke or drink for the same reason — simply because they’re afraid to be different.

How much better it is to show that you have confidence in yourself when the pressure is greatest. You can say, “If you guys want to do something crazy, go ahead. But I think its stupid!” That’s not being childish. That’s a way of showing that you have the courage to oppose the group when they’re wrong. I’ll tell you something else: Most teenagers respect a guy or girl who has the courage to be his own person, even when being teased. An individual with this kind of confidence often becomes a leader. He has shown that he doesn’t feel inferior as the other followers. He’s not made of putty inside. Instead, he has the guts to stand up for what he knows is right.

One other thing — he is likely to influence others who are looking for that one friend who will increase their confidence. (Remember the experiment with the cards?) He might make it possible for someone.

Parents Help Them Choose

I’ve been recommending for at least 30 years now that mothers take their daughters and fathers take their sons away for a short “pre-adolescent” trip. It’s important to talk with them about the approaching adolescent experience prior to its arrival.

After puberty has occurred, youngsters typically become sensitive and easily embarrassed. Some become much more modest than before and others are emotionally volatile. The boy is becoming a man and the girl is becoming a woman — and you’d better not forget it.

I suggest you select a place that has a natural appeal for your child. That might be a fishing trip with Dad, or a shopping spree with Morn in a nearby city. It could be a weekend trip to a theme park. If resources are limited, go to a park for an entire day just to get away from the telephone and other interruptions. It is also important to get away from the other children so that it’s a one-on-one experience.

The purpose of this time away is to talk about the challenges and the changes that are going to occur in the next few years. Remember some of the fears and difficulties that plagued you when you were young? It may have been a time of rejection, longings and temptations that kept you in turmoil. I remember those times, too, because most of us walked a similar path. We remember the questions that we had about God, values, parents, our bodies and peer pressure. For most of us it was a time of self-doubt when we wondered

Even though most adults can recall these scary experiences, it’s interesting to me that most parents don’t bother to tell their kids about the facts. We know the teen years can be difficult, and yet we seldom take steps to prepare a child for what’s ahead. They need to know that the feelings they will soon encounter are normal. Failing to discuss this experience with our youngsters is like sending a youngster up the first big dip of a roller coaster ride without telling him what waits at the top. The trip down the other side can be harrowing for everybody onboard. It is terribly unwise to let your child go through this dynamic emotional time of life having no idea whatsoever that the next few years will be different than anything they’ve ever experienced.

Youngsters especially need to know this journey will not last forever. Everything will settle down again in a few years. Furthermore, its important to tell them that everyone else his or her age will be going through the same challenges. Even though others may be laughing or joking and seeming to be getting along easily, everyone of the same general age is in the same boat. You can lessen the anxiety of those years by explaining that the experiences are entirely predictable — beginning and end. (You don’t need to tell them that some people go on acting like teenagers for the rest of their lives.) This “Preparing for Adolescence” trip is like a football coach who’s giving the final instructions right before the big game — summarizing fundamentals and telling what he expects of them once they get on the field. It is essential to winning the game.


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