Few issues worry parents more than the idea of their child succumbing to peer pressure. But it doesn’t work the way many of us think it does. Children grapple with cliques and social groups even in their early elementary years, and learn important life lessons along the way. “Peer influence,” as experts prefer to call it, is a normal part of childhood and it can be seen as early as preschool when children are first interacting with peers their age. Here’s what peer influence looks like through kids’ different ages—and why parents can take a breath.

What’s Peer Influence?

Human beings are social creatures. “We all have a need to belong and be welcomed and included,” says Lawrence Cohen, a Boston-based psychologist and coauthor of Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children. “We look to others for cues about what to do and not to do,” he says, and it’s a normal, natural part of interacting with others. Kids encounter peer influence when they enter school, in part because they are surrounded by peers, but also because they’re developmentally capable of caring what others think.

Parents worry that peer influence will replace their own influence, but research shows that parental influence remains vital even in adolescence, particularly if the parent-child relationship is strong. In fact, a child pressuring another child into an activity he doesn’t want to do is quite rare and indicates a sign of conflict, says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Princeton psychologist and professor of the Great Courses audio-video lecture series Raising Emotionally and Socially Healthy Kids. Kids tend to resist overt pressure because no one likes to be told what to do. The ways peers influence one another is much more subtle—“through personal preferences, things they enjoy, things they laugh about, and things they model,” Kennedy-Moore says. “Good friends can influence your child to care about school, to be kind, to share, and to play by the rules.” Conversely, kids can decide together to try smoking cigarettes. A Purdue University study examining decades of research concludes kids choose friends like themselves in achievement and other attributes. That doesn’t mean kids always make the right choices, but when they don’t, it’s likely not because they’re being strong-armed by a friend.

Peers Through the Ages

Children face different kinds of peer influences related to age and development throughout childhood. Here’s a snapshot of what’s going on.

Little kids (ages 4-7) tend to be rules-oriented, and gender norms begin to take hold, cementing by age 5 or 6. Boys, for example, learn from peers they shouldn’t play with girls, use girl colors, or play certain games. “It’s a huge loss for many boys,” Cohen says. Five- to 7-year-olds care deeply about having friends and may put up with a not-so-nice friend just to have one because they don’t believe they have other options, says Kennedy-Moore.

Middle-elementary kids’ (ages 8-10) self-esteem goes through a rough patch because they become more self-critical (as early as age 7). They compare themselves to others, begin to realize they’re not always the best, and can feel that “no one likes me.” For girls, having a best friend becomes paramount, and they’ll feel betrayed if the best friend chooses to play with another child. It’s a tricky time for friendships.

Bigger kids (ages 11-13) care what others think of them and are highly sensitive to disapproval. Self-esteem dips, but simultaneously kids can accept and appreciate differences among friends, and they develop better quality friendships because they don’t cling as in elementary school. A good peer group can see a child through a rocky adolescence.

Is It Really Peer Pressure?

When your child exhibits undesirable behaviors, such as talking back after a play date at a mouthy friend’s house, it’s easy to blame the other child, but it’s important to remember that kids try out different selves. One common reaction is that if your child does something bad, he must have been pressured into it, Cohen says. Often we think our kids are caving to peer pressure, but in fact “the child has taken on a value or direction or preference that’s different from ours,” he explains. To view children as weak-willed and without core values vastly oversimplifies the role of peers and doesn’t address the basic human need to belong.

The Importance of Teachers

Teachers play a key role in creating an inclusive and positive climate in the classroom that can keep peer influence healthy. An effective teacher will use group cohesiveness to build a classroom identity through a class mascot, a set of classroom values, or a shared classroom project. Schools can create a schoolwide culture of inclusion through a project where everyone contributes.

It’s crucial that teachers model kindness, warmth, and respect and also insist on kindness to promote a positive classroom climate. When a teacher lets her negative opinion of a child show through, research demonstrates that other students will turn away from that child, Kennedy-Moore says. Teachers can also foster teamwork by teaching what good teamwork is and what behaviors undermine teamwork.

How To Help

If your child is having a hard time standing up to strong-willed friends, or she seems to be making questionable decisions that don’t seem like her, it’s important to assess what’s going on. Before you write off her peers as bad influences, try these strategies.

Listen and acknowledge. Adults often view the desire to belong as a sign of weakness, but it’s a normal and healthy need. When your child is struggling with peer issues, listen to her woes and acknowledge that you realize her decision must be hard. “Be willing to hear about things you don’t necessarily agree with. Be curious and open,” Cohen says. Connecting through listening can help her develop independent thinking. By contrast, jumping to an advisory role can shut a child down and, in turn, increase peer influence.

Foster problem-solving. Allow your child to take the lead on problem-solving to arm him with important coping skills for life. “We’re not around for most of the peer decisions kids are going to make, so we want to help them think things through,” Kennedy-Moore says.

Teach assertiveness. Parents have an especially hard time watching another child be unkind or bossy toward theirs. If you notice this dynamic in your child’s friendship, help role-play some responses, such as “We played your game last time, and this time I’d like to play my game.” Not all kids mind being directed by friends, so explore the dynamics with your child. Ask her “How do you feel when you’re with her?” about her friends and suggest if she feels bad most of the time, it might be worth taking a step back and trying again later or spending time with more compatible peers.

Encourage opinions. Allowing our children to disagree with us isn’t fun, but it helps promote independent thinking. “We say we want our children to think for themselves and not succumb to influence, but at the same time we want them to listen to us and be influenced by us,” Cohen says. Kids won’t suddenly be able to think for themselves around friends if it’s not valued at home. A University of Virginia study found that argumentative teens who were able to express their viewpoint and be assertive at home were more likely to stand up to peer influence around drugs and alcohol later.

Offer an out. When kids hit middle and high school, they might need an escape plan for dicey situations. Let them blame you by saying, “My mom would kill me if I [fill in the blank].” They can roll their eyes as they say it.