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Helping Our Teens Deal with Painful Peer Relationships

Helping Our Teens Deal with Painful Peer Relationships

Preparing my daughter’s lunch, I froze at the retching noises emanating from the bathroom. She was vomiting. Again. This had become part of her morning routine, and no, she wasn’t bulimic. She’d grown so anxious for what she expected to encounter at school; her stomach went into revolt.

Whether outright bullying, hurtful friendships, or just plain dealing with the ups and downs of high school, my daughter deals with countless relational conflicts daily. When this happens, the protector in me slips into fight or flight mode. I either want her to fight back or avoid the situation entirely. But then, God gently tugs at my heart, reminding me there’s much more at stake than who she sits by at lunch, how many snide comments her friend makes, or who whispers lies behind her back.

Although some situations may warrant quick adult intervention, my ultimate goal as a parent is not to shelter her from the world, but rather, to train her to stand strong in it. By viewing every situation from a long-term perspective, engaging her in conversation, and using each relational conflict as a learning opportunity, I can help alleviate some of her angst while training crucial life skills. More than that, I can show her what it means to find wisdom from and seek strength in her Savior.

Dealing with difficult relationships effectively begins with an honest evaluation of the situation, the “offending” individual, and oneself. Ultimately, my daughter must retain responsibility for her behavior while releasing responsibility for others'.

I want her to understand it’s not always about her.

Countless things affect human behavior, from lack of sleep to emotional trauma. As adults, we know this because we’ve lived it. A frustrating meeting or encounter can sour our day and an unexpected trial can turn our normal cheerfulness into tears and emotional outbursts. Now consider these same trials from the perspective of an emotionally and socially immature teenager. They’re going to say and do irrational and hurtful things.

The problem is, our teenagers have a tendency to interpret everything as being somehow related to or caused by them.

“I think every teen and even adults struggle with this,” says Derrick Robison, Youth Pastor of Life Point Church in Stratford, OK. “We live in a culture where everything is self-centered. For example, if my wife is upset because she had a bad day, that thought doesn’t come to mind most of the time. My thoughts are, ‘What did I do? Why is she upset with me?’”

I’ve seen evidence of this with my daughter. That friend who scowled during lunch and suddenly turned distant—they must hate her, right? Or at the very least, have been angry at her for something.

And yet, I know it’s equally plausible that the friend’s behavior is caused by something else entirely.

Most teens know this on a rational level, but recalling that information in the middle of a conflict is another matter. My role, then, is to remind my daughter of this routinely, helping her to sift their encounters through this realization.

In fact, Christ longs for her—for all of us—to take our focus off ourselves entirely. “When we accept Christ as Lord and Savior, he transforms and renews our mind,” Robison says. “The selfish being within is transformed. We become more like him, and Christ came to serve. The mindset of ‘What can I get out of this?’ goes away and the new mindset of ‘How can I serve?’ takes its place.’ So when one of our friends gives us a dirty look or ignores us, our thought process should be, ‘Man, I wonder what they’re going through and how I can pray for them.’”

This type of thinking, of sifting every encounter through God’s perspective, doesn’t happen naturally, but it can be learned. When my daughter faces conflict, through engaged conversation, I help her herself the emotions and motives of her offender. I remind her:

  • Happy people are generally kind, inclusive, and encouraging
  • Wounded people often hurt others
  • The negative behaviors many students exhibit at school are often signs of poor coping skills and social immaturity

We then discuss the offender in detail, looking at possible reasons for the hurtful behavior. Although this doesn’t rectify the issue, it reduces the sting. It helps her understand the issue is one of immaturity rather than a statement on her. 

At this point, conflict resolution may be in order. This is a much-needed but rarely practiced skill in today’s world, even in the church. It’s much easier to end a friendship or avoid an individual than than to resolve issues. But it is vitally important for my daughter’s future marriage and career that she learns to resolve conflict lovingly and effectively. Like anything else, this will take guidance and practice, which can be difficult if we ourselves struggle in this area. Luckily, the Bible lays out the steps for us in Matthew 18:15-17:

“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”

Although this passage is specifically talking about dealing with sin in the church, the principles can be applied to most relational conflicts. These principles, which I relay to my daughter, are:

1. Approach the individual with the goal of resolution and reconciliation rather than justification or vengeance

2. Keep the matter between the offended and the offender. (In other words, resist the urge to “vent” to others.)

3. Get help when needed, involving as few people as possible

At this point, my daughter often voices the concern: What if the offender won’t listen or gets upset? In response, I remind her of Romans 12:18, which says: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (NIV).

To paraphrase: I encourage her to do what she knows is right and leave the rest to God, because she has no control over how her offender responds. She is, however, responsible for her behavior.

Next, the conversation shifts to self-evaluation where I encourage her to consider and acknowledge her part in the conflict.

We all have hidden and often sinful motives that affect our behavior. My daughter is no exception. This is especially true when she’s been hurt. Similarly, it’s easy for her to become so focused on the other person’s behavior she fails to see their faults.

This is why Jesus encourages each of us to examine ourselves before attempting to address someone else’s behavior.

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:1-5 NIV).

I like to discuss this verse with my daughter because it lays the groundwork for effective communication. Notice, Jesus didn’t say, “Leave our brother’s plank alone.” Rather, he tells the offended to remove your own plank first—those things that distort their vision such as sinful attitudes, past wounds, or lies that can distort perceptions.

It’s at this point we often get to the heart of the issue—the reason why the offending behavior is so hurtful.

Everyone has lies they’ve come to believe and that they carry with them into every situation. Lies like:

“I’m stupid.”

“I’m annoying.”

“No one likes me.”

“If only I were/could/did/had…”

My daughter is no different. Over the years, she’s allowed negative thinking to seep in and alter her self-perception. Therefore, when a negative encounter occurs, it’s easy for her to interpret a behavior as confirmation of the lie. This is why it cuts so deeply—because she believes it’s true! My role is to help her recognize the lie then replace it with truth found in Scripture. Because her thoughts affect her emotions, and her emotions affect her actions. This is why I spend a great deal of time and energy teaching her to take her thoughts captive and make them obedient to Christ.

To do this, she must:

1. Recognize faulty thinking when it first arises.

2. Refuse to dwell on the faulty thinking. Negativity breeds more negativity, and thoughts, left unchecked, are like snowballs tumbling downhill. However, with practice, she can learn to stop those negative and self-defeating thoughts at any point in the tumble.

3. Replace negative thoughts with truth. I encourage her to remind herself of her strengths and blessings. This isn’t conceit because she’s not attempting to elevate herself above another, nor is she relying on herself or her efforts. Rather, she’s reminding herself of her standing with Christ.

Finally, I encourage her to view every encounter from a long-term perspective because difficult relationships don’t end in high school. One day, she’ll have to deal with an angry boss or abusive neighbor. How she handles situations today will impact her ability to handle conflicts later. Every time she chooses strength, maturity, perseverance, and love, those patterns of behavior are strengthened. Similarly, every time she chooses selfishness, combativeness, and pride, those patterns of behavior are strengthened.

I also remind her God is sovereign, even in the high school hallway. Although he doesn’t cause painful peer relationships, when they occurs, it’s because he’s allowed it, and if he’s allowed it, he wants to teach her something from it. Understanding this gives purpose to her pain and helps turn her from a victim to a victor.

Human relationships are challenging, and my daughter and her peers often lack the emotional, spiritual, and social maturity needed to handle them effectively. With guidance, communication, and a continual emphasis on truths Scriptural truths, I can help her remain strong when wounded and use every encounter as a growth and learning opportunity. Twenty years from now, when married and employed and raising her own children, I believe she’ll thank me for it.

Jennifer Slattery lives in the midwest with her husband and their teenage daughter. She writes for Christ to the World Ministries, Internet Cafe Devotions, and maintains a devotional blog at JenniferSlatteryLivesOutLoud. Her work has appeared in numerous publications and compilation projects.

Publication date: April 15, 2014