Before kids have cell phones, they have no choice but to speak to each other. During the earlier elementary years kids are refining their self-concept through their interaction with peers, so communication often lacks a lot of social grace and can even appear to disregard others’ feelings. And bless their little hearts, many arguments include a phrase such as “my mom says… .” I still remember having a hard time watching kids have conflict during these years because so many feelings seem to be hurt, but I give them a little more latitude knowing that they are clumsily expressing their own opinions and learning to tolerate the fact that others may not share those opinions. And given the fact that they are rookies in the conflict resolution department allowed me to hold out hope that they would be taught more effective communication and conflict resolution skills in the coming years. I was wrong.
What happened was these kids became tweens and got cell phones, and all conflict is now dealt with via text. Ok, that may be a slight exaggeration. Obviously tweens do talk with one another. But many tweens tend to lack conflict resolution skills when dealing with each other in person. Here’s what happens: Tweens love texting, and quickly learn that they can type out whatever they like and hit send without having to feel nervous about what they are saying, summoning up courage to stand up for themselves, or seeing another person’s face when they are reading what was sent to them. Of course this is what they choose to do – it’s so much easier!! So very quickly, when someone says something they don’t like, they simply pocket that information until such time that they are able to access their phone and shoot back a reply. A very passive-aggressive approach, but one that is understandably easier to master.
And once kids get social media accounts, it becomes even easier to say things in a cryptic yet obvious way. For example, my daughter knew two girls who used to be friends. There was a series of problems between the girls and girl X no longer liked girl Y. After a few text exchanges indicating the end of the friendship, girl X tweeted “my life is so much happier without you in it.” No names, no specifics, but it is quite obvious who she is talking about. These girls never had a face to face argument, the entire end of their friendship happened through their phones and Twitter. There are countless stories like this, where the nuts and bolts of relationships are happening through cyberspace and not in person.
I began thinking that I wanted to make sure my daughter knew better and wouldn’t manage relationships in this way. But I realized that texting and social media aren’t going anywhere, so I would have to teach her conflict resolution in the context of this new way of communication, I couldn’t simply pretend it didn’t exist. This certainly isn’t the a-b-c’s of how to resolve conflict, it’s concepts that may not have been considered before. Here’s what I tell her:
Recognize and identify feelings. My daughter claims that I only ask her to do this because I’m a therapist. Possibly true, but I know this is a good idea! If an argument arises in person or via text, take a quick second to admit to yourself your true feelings. As a culture, we tend to want to avoid any unpleasant feelings and work very hard to just make them go away. Telling yourself “wow, she just really hurt my feelings” or “her telling me she is going to do something with Ashley really makes me jealous” can truly put you in a better place to react. Trying to avoid these feelings often leads to a hasty reaction where you might say something you don’t mean. Besides putting you in a better position to react, it also gives you that extra few seconds to take a breath and keep calm.
Just because someone asks you a question doesn’t mean you have to give an answer. I told you before how my daughter gets annoyed at some of my parental/therapist suggestions. Well, not this one. This one set her free and I’ve heard her repeat it to many friends. Someone looking to pick a fight will likely ask a question to get the ball rolling. “Why would you sit at Abbey’s table at lunch? You know she doesn’t like you” is much more likely to goad you into conflict than “it made me upset that you sat with Abbey today.” See what I mean? Teaching kids that they don’t have to answer a question just because it was asked can help them evaluate situations and find ways to avoid or minimize conflict. “Thanks for your concern about seating arrangements at lunch, I’ve got it covered” gives your child some power back, and moves them toward the goal of getting away from the conflict, not being lured into it.
Take responsibility if you need to. As parents, we usually hear one side of a conflict, the side that means that someone is being mean to our sweet, innocent child. Sometimes things do occur unprovoked. But sometimes, our sweet child has played a part in the conflict. I was so angry to hear that my daughter was being ‘flipped off’ by a former friend. This is unacceptable behavior, but I later found out that my daughter and her friends had been whispering about this girl as she walked by. It’s hard to admit sometimes, but things don’t always happen out of the blue. Outrage at the mistreatment of our kids is unavoidable, but giving them a free pass from acknowledging their behavior and role in the conflict teaches them that we don’t hold them to a very high standard. Have high expectations of your child in her personal interactions with people as well as what she does online. My daughter knows that I will always support her and will not tolerate any mistreatment toward her, but she also knows that I will look at the whole situation, and she better hope she can explain her actions during any conflict.
If you wouldn’t say it face-to-face, don’t text it. I don’t know about you, but I am the queen of walking away from a conflict and then spending the next few hours thinking of what I should have said. But really, I would never say most of what I come up with, I just think these things to make me feel better. What kids are able to do now is think of these things, and actually text them or shout them out via social media. They need to understand that just because it makes them feel better, it doesn’t make it okay. This only escalates conflict, and doesn’t reflect the high standard we just talked about holding them to. If it helps to give them a visual, ask them to imagine having what they wrote read back to them by say, the principal, or you. Bottom line, don’t let kids learn to hide behind their phones and computers – there are consequences for all actions, virtual or otherwise.
Have ongoing conversations about what can be handled via text and what needs to be dealt with in person. A while back I was talking with my daughter about what rules we would have in place for talking on the phone when she had a boyfriend. Her reply? “Why would I be talking on the phone with my boyfriend?” As I mentioned, I may think the new rules for communicating are ridiculous (because seriously, they are). But this is the way things are, so trying to create rules based on my tween and teen years in the 80s doesn’t make any sense.
I do insist, however, that my daughter cultivate face-to-face communication skills. Have conversations with your child about which situations are okay to handle via text. Everyday conversations can be had this way, and even some conflict. It’s okay to discuss a situation with a friend via text, just make sure she learns how to listen (virtually, I guess) to the other person and use the tried and true “I” messages. She should gain some experience discussing things in person, as well, though. With a friend, there is an expectation that the situation will be resolved, even over text. If the conflict is with someone who is not a friend, I would shut it down on text, because there is no expectation of resolution and the exchange is not likely to go well. Work on teaching your child how to handle this situation in person in an assertive way. It will take some time for both of you to get a feel for how to decipher which situations are okay for text and which are not. That’s okay!
Tweens and teens spend a great deal of time communicating on their phones, it’s near impossible to slow this trend. But it is possible to make sure that what they are doing doesn’t become so mindless that they forget there are real people on the other end, or that they become the victims of bullying, or that they eventually lack the skills to deal with people in person. I don’t have a perfect formula with my daughter, but we are doing the best that we can so that she can still exist in the world of technology, yet she knows how to put down her phone and be assertive, how to advocate for herself, how to resolve conflict, how to express feelings, how to develop empathy, and how to maintain eye contact with another person. Without these, how will she talk to the coach of the softball team she wants to play for in college, or develop meaningful friendships, or stand up to a bully, or get a job, or exchange wedding vows? Let’s all devote a little more time to helping our kids navigate this new way of communicating in a way that will keep them fitting in while still encouraging them to become the best versions of themselves. What’s been the hardest part tween/teen communication for you?