Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Rural Peer Pressure And Teen Drinking

July 2, 2001

What is it like to raise a bright, socially popular child in a small community? The rural environment with its fabled closeness and warmth provide an extra level of protection and security to life - to a point. During the teenage years, this smallness and closeness can boomerang.

Parents of high achieving teens are surprised by how many risks their normally sensible children take with alcohol. Rural teens drink, drive drunk and ride with drinking drivers more frequently than their urban counterparts. Despite solid parenting, church participation, family love and traditional values, parents are amazed and aghast by the powerful influence of peer pressure on their child's behavior.

Pressures parents face. Parents in small communities have the same kind of social pressure. Why?

- Adult drinking. Recreation for adults frequently centers around drinking or activities where drinking is present. Parental injunctions not to drink come off as hollow and hypocritical in a social environment that is lubricated by alcohol.

- Rural permissiveness. Even when parents aren't drinkers themselves, the prevailing attitudes like, "Nobody is doing anything wrong," and, "Alcohol is OK, it is drugs that are bad," undercut parental authority. When teens see the vast majority of their peers drink, they come to see their parents as the ones being rigid and out of step.

- Lack of consequences. Being caught may not have adequate consequences. School and community law enforcement officials often feel a lack of community support for tough rules. When tough rules are in effect, parents help their teens cover up drinking episodes or fight off the consequences.

- Small town politics. When parents do intercede, pressure builds for other parents to cover up or protect their children rather than be perceived as mean and unsupportive. Likewise, it is easier for school administrators, coaches and police officers to ignore the problem than to be hassled or condemned when they do take a stand. Small town politics can be intimidating to public officials and parents.

When the "in-group" drinks. The small number of students creates a more intense kind of peer pressure. The entire class might constitute the "in-group." Rural teens strongly assert that their peers don't overtly pressure them to drink. What is striking is that most social life centers around drinking. To be a non-drinker in a rural school is to risk not having a social life at all.

In a large school, teens have more choices for finding acceptance in a non-drinking group. In a rural school, one finds the social split between the "partiers" and the "non-partiers."

The "non-partiers" aren't really a group. They don't get together. The "non-partiers" tend to have stricter parents, be more religious or be more serious about school (brainy). Occasionally, teens from this group may attend parties and not drink or drink only on special occasions - prom or graduation.

If most popular kids drink, they set the trend and put pressure on the rest. "Either you are like us or you are out of it." The fear of being lonely and socially isolated in a small school is strong. It is hard to go against the grain when part of the task of adolescence is finding approval from peers, refining social skills and asserting one's independence from parents. Other factors include:

- Mixing of age groups. Rural schools are like one big family. Older students invite younger ones to their parties. Younger siblings are included in their older sibling's activities. In large schools, junior high students aren't invited to high school parties. In the rural environment, the recruitment of partiers crosses class lines.

- Young adults and teen drinking. High school graduates who have remained in the community have a vested interest in drinking parties. They do not have enough numbers in their own social group, so they help sponsor the parties and buy the booze.

- Sponsoring parents. Some "enlightened" parents rationalize that the way to teach teens to drink responsibly is to host the party and provide a "supervised" atmosphere.

- The senior year. Drinking accelerates during the senior year in high school. "It's our senior year. We have to party." Being a senior gives an additional layer of permission to an already permissive environment.

What can parents do? Parents who don't like what is going on feel as isolated as their teens in trying to buck the cultural acceptance of alcohol. Despite that isolation, when parents are willing to take a strong stand and have zero tolerance for teen drinking, this gives teens the out they need to resist the drinking scene. It is OK to blame the parents.

Parents in small rural communities can band together to sponsor alcohol-free activities. They can agree to conform to a single set of guidelines about supporting school and law enforcement consequences for drinking offenses. They also can communicate with each other about activities, curfews and chaperoning.

High achieving teens from quality families prefer and respond positively to alternatives from the teen drinking scene. It's true. But they won't do it without their friends. It is too big a risk. When enough parents and community members join together and cooperate, drinking by rural teens will go down. Peer pressure can be used in a positive fashion. All teens need is a choice.