When you were a little kid, your parents usually chose your friends, putting you in play groups or arranging play dates with certain children they knew and liked. Now that you're older, you decide who your friends are and what groups you spend time with.

Your friends — your peers — are people your age or close to it who have experiences and interests similar to yours. You and your friends make dozens of decisions every day, and you influence each other's choices and behaviors. This is often positive — it's human nature to listen to and learn from other people in your age group.

As you become more independent, your peers naturally play a greater role in your life. As school and other activities take you away from home, you may spend more time with peers than you do with your parents and siblings. You'll probably develop close friendships with some of your peers, and you may feel so connected to them that they are like an extended family.

Besides close friends, your peers include other kids you know who are the same age — like people in your grade, church, sports team, or community. These peers also influence you by the way they dress and act, things they're involved in, and the attitudes they show.

It's natural for people to identify with and compare themselves to their peers as they consider how they wish to be (or think they should be), or what they want to achieve. People are influenced by peers because they want to fit in, be like peers they admire, do what others are doing, or have what others have.

Peer Influence Isn't All Bad

You already know that the teen years can be tough. You're figuring out who you are, what you believe, what you're good at, what your responsibilities are, and what your place in the world is going to be.

It's comforting to face those challenges with friends who are into the same things that you are. But you probably hear adults — parents, teachers, guidance counselors, etc. — talk about peer pressure more than the benefits of belonging to a peer group.

You might not hear a lot about it, but peers have a profoundly positive influence on each other and play important roles in each other's lives:

-Friendship. Among peers you can find friendship and acceptance, and share experiences that can build lasting bonds.

-Positive examples. Peers set plenty of good examples for each other. Having peers who are committed to doing well in school or to doing their best in a sport can influence you to be more goal-oriented, too. Peers who are kind and loyal influence you to build these qualities in yourself. Even peers you've never met can be role models! For example, watching someone your age compete in the Olympics, give a piano concert, or spearhead a community project might inspire you to go after a dream of your own.

-Feedback and advice. Your friends listen and give you feedback as you try out new ideas, explore belief, and discuss problems. Peers can help you make decisions, too: what courses to take; whether to get your hair cut, let it grow, or dye it; how to handle a family argument. Peers often give each other good advice. Your friends will be quick to tell you when they think you're making a mistake or doing something risky.

-Socializing. Your peer group gives you opportunities to try out new social skills. Getting to know lots of different people — such as classmates or teammates — gives you a chance to learn how to expand your circle of friends, build relationships, and work out differences. You may have peers you agree or disagree with, compete with, or team with, peers you admire, and peers you don't want to be like.

-Encouragement. Peers encourage you to work hard to get the solo in the concert, help you study, listen and support you when you're upset or troubled, and empathize with you when they've experienced similar difficulties.

-New experiences. Your peers might get you involved in clubs, sports, or religious groups. Your world would be far less rich without peers to encourage you try sushi for the first time, listen to a CD you've never heard before, or to offer moral support when you audition for the school play.