Peer pressure is powerful. The need to fit in is a biological urge, one that is hard to ignore at every age and stage. When it comes to the use of drugs and alcohol, peer pressure can play a key role, not only in one’s attitudes toward use of drugs and alcohol but also in how often they have access to dangerous substances. Also, in the absence of healthier coping mechanisms, being surrounded by people who continually turn to substance abuse as a way of relaxing or managing stress can make it more difficult to identify alternative behavioral responses.
When it is time to undergo treatment, peer groups continue to be a factor. Creating an entirely new support system is often necessary and, though difficult, is critical to long-term success in recovery. This process begins during treatment and should continue as the person transitions into independent, drug-free living.
The environment in which someone lives contributes significantly to their perspectives in the world and the choices they make. If, for example, someone is raised with parents who routinely abuse alcohol or have drugs around the house, it is more likely that someone will have a permissive attitude toward drug use in general, both by their friends and for themselves. In the same way, if one lives in a neighborhood where it is common for people to sit outside and drink heavily, drugs are sold on the street, or schoolmates frequently and openly use drugs and alcohol, then trying and/or using drugs and alcohol regularly may not feel like an issue – it becomes normal and something that is just done without question.
Additionally, the details of use are often shaped by environment and peers as well, including:
- What drugs are “normal” and which ones are taboo
- How much is too much
- Usage patterns (e.g., what frequency of drug use is “normal”)
- Working while under the influence
- Level of loss or sacrifice that is expected with drug use (e.g., “normal” to lose a girlfriend over high rates of drug use or “normal” to stay in entry-level or low-level positions due to focus on drug use)
The substances that are most frequently in use among peers are likely to be the substances that are used and abused by an individual. If, in a certain neighborhood, a high number of people use crack cocaine, for example, then it is more likely that an individual in this environment will also use this drug at higher rates. When there are certain substances that are more easily accessible than others – such as a high number of liquor stores or bars in a neighborhood or certain drugs that are popular among different groups – then frequent exposure may decrease any taboo associated with use of the drug and increase the likelihood that someone will not only experiment with the substance but also use it frequently.
Age of First Use
When surrounded by peers who use alcohol and other drugs from an early age (e.g., growing up with siblings or parents who drink or get high, going to school with kids who use drugs, etc.), it is more likely that an individual will use those substances personally at an earlier age. Friends who drink or get high, or have permissive attitudes about the use of a certain substance, can give a young person the impression that use is safe and without any risk of harm. This in turn can contribute to both high-dose use and frequent use, which can increase the likelihood that substance abuse will turn into addiction.
Continued Access and Use
When peers are using drugs and alcohol regularly and encouraging someone to do join them, it can be more difficult to stop the practice once started. Even if someone’s initial experience with a substance is negative, if their peer group continues to use the drug or normalizes that experience, then an individual who might have otherwise been deterred from further use may continue to use the drug. Continued use and access to the substance, in turn, may contribute to the development of dependence or addiction.
Peers can also enable a person’s drug and alcohol use, even if they are not active or regular users of the substances themselves. For example, a friend who wants to support someone they see struggling due to substance abuse may want to “help” when they are struck by the negative consequences of that use. If they do not see substance use and abuse as a dangerous issue, they may:
- Offer money to mend immediate financial issues
- Help them connect with a dealer in order to stave off withdrawal symptoms
- Offer them a place to stay, childcare, etc., as needed when their drug use stops them from supplying these things for themselves
- Not offer the suggestion or idea that treatment is a long-term solution to the problems caused by drug and alcohol use
Enabling behaviors allow people to continue in active drug and alcohol use longer without the realization that a substance use disorder that requires treatment may be the true problem.
With peers who are also actively using drugs and alcohol or in support of continued drug use, addiction becomes an increased risk. Repeat and frequent use contributes to use of substances for the purposes of managing normal life issues (e.g., boredom, depression, stress, anger, etc.). When in crisis or in need of something to do, without healthy coping mechanisms modeled by peers, an individual may be more likely to engage in substance abuse.
When this psychological dependence is characterized by compulsive use of the drug and an inability to moderate that use despite the buildup of unavoidable consequences of choices made under the influence, then addiction is present. When compounded by physical dependence, characterized by withdrawal symptoms when without the drug of choice, it can be that much more difficult to manage the issue without professional treatment.
As noted, peer pressure can play a major role in early age of first use as well as continued use of drugs and alcohol, and become a barrier to connecting with treatment. It is not, however, the only issue that can increase the likelihood of addiction. Other factors that can combine with peer pressure and contribute to the development of a substance use disorder, include the following:
- Genetics: When parents or siblings struggle with drug addiction, an individual may be more likely to develop a problem. If the close, blood relation lives with the individual and provides an environment of permissive use, genetic predisposition to the development of addiction may be even more powerful – and both together with peer pressure can further contribute to an early age of first use of substances.
- Co-occurring mental health disorders: Living with certain mental health disorders may increase the likelihood of developing a substance use disorder. Approximately half of all people living with a diagnosed alcohol use disorder are also living with a mental health disorder – and vice versa.
- Early age of first use: The earlier that an individual first tries drugs or alcohol, the more likely it is that a lifelong substance abuse problem will develop. Exposure to a peer group that drinks and gets high at an early age can increase the likelihood of earlier first age of use.
- Personality: Sometimes, personal interest may be a factor that contributes to drugs or alcohol. An interest in a certain culture in which use of a certain drug is a defining characteristic, simply enjoying the experience of drinking or getting high, or a lack of personal boundaries applied to drug use can cause one person to develop a lifelong drug problem after peer pressure and another a person to simply decline and move on.
Treatment and Recovery: Rebuilding Peer Groups
When peer pressure plays a significant role in the development of a drug abuse problem, it will also be an important factor to address during treatment and ongoing recovery. Developing a strong support network and learning how to communicate positively with others in general are both skills that will help to create a firm foundation in recovery.
Feeling strong and trusting oneself can help someone in recovery to identify positive new relationships and walk away from the relationships that have the potential to be harmful. Too often, people in recovery report that a fear of being left out of a group may have made them feel that some level of drug use was obligatory. This low self-confidence may also contribute to making the high after drug use that much more of a relief, which in turn creates cravings for continued drug use.
Building self-confidence during treatment and recognizing one’s strengths as well as connecting with others authentically can provide the opportunity to forge bonds based on positive connections and shared experiences rather than drug use.
If family members are continuing to use drugs and alcohol, it can be difficult to break those ties and commit to recovery. If family members were enabling addiction and/or harmed by choices made under the influence, it can take time to relearn how to interact with one another. During treatment, this can begin with family therapy sessions but it must continue after treatment as well, both in therapy and in the context of support groups where others can provide an objective lens and ongoing support.
Learning how to connect with others who are actively in recovery, building positive relationships with friends and family that may have fallen to the wayside during active addiction, and creating positive new connections out in the world are essential pieces of long-term recovery. This begins with learning how to get needs met healthfully in treatment, and it continues after returning home in personal therapy sessions, therapy sessions with close family members, and support group meetings. It is also a process of trial and error, and it requires a commitment to check in with oneself and trusted others when making choices in relationships and getting close to other people.
Alumni groups can be a good way to begin the process of building a community in recovery. Maintaining connections with people in treatment during the transition into independent living can give all the feeling of “family” and support no matter what challenges occur at home. Regular meetings, outings, and the opportunity to share one’s story can be powerful. When combined with 12-Step meetings, personal therapy, and family therapy, it can be a cornerstone in long-term recovery.