As children approach their teenage years, life becomes – for better or for worse – all about friends. While this can create unforgettable bonding experiences, it can also make for unforgettable wounds.
Because teenage conflicts are inevitable, it is best to learn from the mistakes that are made and grow from them. If not, there can be undesired consequences of festering grudges and unresolved offenses. Eventually, social stresses can turn into maladaptive coping mechanisms such as internalizing distress and aggression.
While we cannot avoid conflict, we can control its outcome by controlling how we respond to them. There are three unhealthy roles we can take in response to conflict: we can be a “bulldozer,” a “doormat,” or a “doormat with spikes.” A bulldozer takes the aggressive route, dominating and running others over, and the doormat allows others to run over them. A doormat with spikes allows themselves to be run over but gets back at the aggressor through passive-aggressive tactics, which may involve a third party or attempt to guilt the aggressor.
One healthy way to approach conflict is to take the role of a “pillar” – standing up for yourself while respecting others. This way takes practice.
For example, say a middle school girl gets left out of a friend’s party:
- A bulldozer response would be to come to the party anyway and try to ruin it.
- A doormat response would be to cry alone by herself about being left out, and then try to please the friend to be included into the party the next time.
- A doormat-with-spikes response may be to stay silent at first but then post an embarrassing picture of her friend from the party later.
- The healthy pillar response would be to directly approach this friend and ask her, politely and respectfully, why she was not invited, and if she may have done something to offend her.
This also applies to online conflicts – the instinctual response is to take up one of the unhealthy roles. After all, it’s difficult to convey the proper tone needed to be a pillar online. If possible, it is best to take conflicts offline and have a private discussion in person.
In an ideal world, we would all strive to be pillars. But the world is far from perfect, so we just need to choose our battles. Conflict can take an enormous amount of energy, and even being a pillar might not resolve things; it might not generate the response we want by the other person. Sometimes, we don’t have the energy to be a pillar. Sometimes, we don’t have the motivation to resolve a conflict. Sometimes, it feels good to just let some anger out and fester in our angst. But before we do, we can take five seconds to think about the consequences of what would happen. We can think of alternatives – such as walking away, punch a punching bag, or just have a good cry. We can even imagine our delightful revenge, and fantasy in a bulldozer response, without acting on it. Afterward, we can pick ourselves up and try to be a pillar again the next time a conflict comes. Sometimes, it will work, and sometimes it won’t – but those are a part of the growing pains.
Can you remember a time that you were in a conflict with a friend? How did you respond, and how did things turn out? Do you have any tips of what has worked for you, or have any especially challenging experiences for which you’d like to seek advice? Share your thoughts and experiences below!
This SOVA blog post was based off Lisa Damour’s article from The New York Times, “How to Help Tweens and Teens Manage Social Conflict.” To access the original post, check it out here.