Why immigrant teens find it harder to resist peer pressure?

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By Sabrina Almeida

Every one of us has had to deal with peer pressure growing up. While some are able to stand their ground most of the time, others feel themselves being swept up by the tide. The desire to conform or fit in, which is natural, usually determines your stance. How little or how long is what makes all the difference. For some it continues even into adulthood. The fancy lifestyle that includes a big house and luxury cars is often governed by an individual’s desire to keep up with others in his/her social circle, irrespective of whether or not they can afford it.

There is no disputing the importance of peer approval especially in the teenage years when many young people begin their quest for self-identity. Establishing this “self” involves making difficult choices every step of the way. Most teens are self-conscious and highly impressionable at this time. With friends gaining importance over parents, there is a tendency to seek their advice and approval in everything. Food, clothes, music, behaviour, relationships, etc. become collective decisions rather than individual or family ones.

For many immigrant kids who must either blend in or become the subject of ridicule, all they can do is fall in line with the way of the majority. Sticking out like a sore thumb is far worse fate than incurring the wrath of their traditional parents.

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Girls, I’m told, feel more pressure to conform than boys. With attractiveness often being a measure of their self-worth, hanging with the cool and hip is the ticket to social success. This can become a nerve-wracking task for South Asian girls who have to battle stereotypes that their parents enforce.

“Anarkali”, a Brampton-made web series which follows the life of an Indo-Canadian woman attempting to date after her fiancé dumps her, is a realistic portrayal of their experiences. Being categorized as prudes, unfashionable and smelling of curry, many find it difficult to find a date even within the community. Given this dismal scenario, as one episode reveals, being mistaken for Spanish or South American is a huge compliment. Simply put, the last thing they want to be seen as is the “exotic Indian”, which is a polite way of saying “weird Indian”.

The trauma begins with picture day in elementary school when parents sometimes insist on traditional clothing and continues right through prom where wearing an expensive gown, getting your hair done at a parlour and renting limousine to arrive in style is a forbidden dream.

Yet fitting in can have many dimensions.

It’s easy to picture a ‘desi’ girl being on the periphery of an indulgent Western culture and raise the racism flag. But rather hard to digest when she must take her “desiness” up several notches to fit in. This is an unacknowledged reality in many Brampton and Mississauga public schools (like Malton) with a majority of Indian or South Asians students.

One Sikh gentleman shared his experience where he observed that his 16-year-old daughter was becoming increasingly dogmatic in her religious practices and conservative in her dressing. She abandoned shorts and T-shirts for trousers and long-sleeved kurtas. After much probing, he discovered the reason for the new found consciousness. The girl had become part of a group that had strong views on religion, culture and upholding tradition. He managed to talk her out of it.

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Another lady of Indian origin, now in her thirties, who grew up in Malton also recalled being bullied because she spoke “Hindi” and not “Punjabi”. She described how students of Indian origin in Guelph University were polarized on the basis of whether they originated from Chandigarh and Punjab or New Delhi. With the latter being looked down upon. The separatist views in India have managed to retain their hold on the second generation, thanks to parents who openly air their biases, and influences their friendships.

Most parents tend to ignore internal turmoil peer pressure can create, preferring to see it as a passing phase and opportunity to lay down the law. Yet is it important to acknowledge that the increasing need to fit in can make peer pressure harder to resist for children of immigrants.

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The struggle to balance conflicting values and overcome feelings of instability and isolation often results in substance abuse, erratic and extreme behaviour. Maintaining a healthy dialogue and letting your tweens and teens talk about their struggles and experiences is a powerful adjustment tool. The best way to help your kids resist peer pressure is to listen to them without being judgemental, finding the middle ground and strengthening the bonds you have with them.

Constantly knocking them or their friends down is more likely to push them in the direction you don’t want them to take.

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