Conformity describes shaping actions and beliefs to align with the opinions and behaviors of others. Tweens, typically students in middle school, feel pressure to conform during the middle-adolescent years. Teens unable to develop a sense of autonomy to deal with peer pressures in middle school often continue with the struggle to create self-esteem and confidence in high school. Adults can help teenagers deal with the challenges by talking with teens and discussing the alternatives to conforming.
Noted psychologist Abraham Maslow suggests a hierarchy of human needs, and one of the needs on the hierarchy is the urge to belong and be accepted by friends, family and peers. Teens want to belong to a family, but most teenagers also want to establish trust relationships with peers. Teens join gangs and cliques and select friends in an effort to feel a sense of belonging. One way teens achieve this sense is to dress and act like friends or members of the clique or gang. Conformity for some teens helps satisfy the belonging need.
Well-adjusted teens learn to be comfortable with personal choices. These teens develop the ability to make choices about what to think, how to act, and also to make individual decisions, without feeling stress when these decisions don't conform to peer or society norms, according to the University of Nebraska Lincoln Extension. The pressure to conform doesn't end with the teen years, but people developing a sense of self during these years feel more conformable with themselves and have greater stability as adults.
Teens sometimes deal with the stress of conformity by withdrawing from others, including eating in the library during lunch or refusing to attend school social events. Teens unable to deal with the stress from isolation sometimes develop severe anti-social behaviors, such as attempted suicide, eating disorders and violence. Teens viewed as outside the accepted gender roles, for example, have greater risk for abuse by others, according to a study done by Andrea Roberts of Harvard School of Public Health. This study also finds the abuse contributes to post-traumatic stress disorder in the non-conforming teens.
Parents and family members help teens deal with the pressures of conformity by working with the teenager to develop coping skills. Teaching teenagers to accept diversity and develop empathy for others at home discourages teen involvement in negative activities against other teens failing to follow social and cultural norms. Discussing peer pressure and human differences allows teens to explore the variety of diversity in life. Teens feeling comfortable with personal decisions must develop empathy and compassion for teens still struggling with personal development. Professional groups and agencies, including the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Bully Project and the American Humane Association offer programs and activities to help teens deal with peers and the pressure to conform during the tween and teen years.