Inside: How we respond when teens have conflict is key to helping them build resiliency
I recently had coffee at a friend’s house when her teen daughter came in looking visibly distraught.
“I just feel stupid,” the young teen told her mom. “They were all out at the ice rink, and no one said a word to me about it. I don’t understand why they didn’t include me.”
Her “group” had made plans without her, and of course, she saw it all play out on social media.
I listened to the young girl rationalize why they might have left her out. “Well, I did say I had to study for finals. And I’m not really friends with the girl who might have set it up. Or, it might be because of dance tryouts last week….it’s been weird between Alyssa and me since she didn’t make the team.”
I nodded my head in solidarity with my friend’s daughter. I had to admit I was interested to hear how the mom would handle this all-too-common situation.
“Well, they’re probably just jealous of you, honey, because you get good grades and made the top dance team, and they didn’t,” my friend said matter-of-factly.
“You think?” the girl replied, tears welling up in her eyes.. “You think they’re just jealous of me, so that’s why they didn’t invite me to go?”
Feeling left out is a common problem for tweens and teens
I left my friend’s house a few minutes after that exchange, but the interaction between the mother and daughter stuck with me for much longer.
I couldn’t help but think of all the times we use jealousy as a rationalization for someone else’s behavior, and it wasn’t sitting well with me.
Maybe the girls were jealous, or maybe they honestly thought my friend’s daughter was unavailable. Maybe they didn’t make the plans. Maybe, just maybe, leaving her out was in direct response to something she had done to them.
Social media exasperates feeling left out, as we often mindlessly scroll through images and come across a photo of a group at some fun activity that did not happen to include us.
In addition to feeling left out, there is the fear of feeling left behind. Many parents and teens curate a life that looks perfect to those around them.
It is intimidating to be surrounded by parents sharing about their teen’s admittance to an Ivy League school or their son hitting the game-winning home run in the Little League World Series, or their daughter who won the state science competition.
It’s extra hard when you are struggling just to get your teen to come out of their room for five minutes, when you may be dealing with some challenging behavior, when your every move as a parent seems to be wrong.
Sometimes when we feel envy, it’s easy to project that onto every challenging situation.
But what happens when we continually use jealousy as the rationale for behavior?
We end up telling our teens that the only reason anyone treats them poorly is that someone is envious of their talent, stature, or situation, which often isn’t the case at all.
You cannot try to guess why someone acts a certain way without knowing the full context
For example, a few years back, a friendship went off the rails for me. A neighbor I cared about a great deal turned into someone I didn’t even know anymore. I tried multiple times to mend fences, but she clearly stated she wanted nothing to do with me.
As another friend and I sat and tried to figure out why my relationship with this woman turned combative, the response came easily.
She was jealous of the relationship I formed with another mom, perhaps even jealous of the fun we were having. My friend even surmised that perhaps she was jealous of a position I recently acquired.
It didn’t seem to fit based on the person I knew, but it was a simple rationalization, alleviating me from any responsibility or introspection.
I found out nearly a year later that a mutual acquaintance shared what I thought had been a private conversation with three other women over wine.
The private conversation involved our observations about how we felt her husband was a little too controlling, after she provided what seemed like a lame excuse for not joining us for a birthday dinner. I wouldn’t say the discussion was malicious, but I can see how it would be hurtful if relayed.
The net-net is I did something wrong, and I got caught,
She wasn’t jealous of anything. She was mad, and rightfully so.
Unfortunately, she received an exaggerated story that I spread this gossip all through town, and she decided anything that subsequently came out of my mouth was not worth hearing.
We both handled the situation poorly, and it took me a while to process the entire event and understand my role in it.
I did provide another heartfelt apology acknowledging specifically what I did wrong, and our relationship improved, but it was never the same.
Hurting someone I cared about made me grow as a person in a way that would never have happened if I used jealousy as an excuse.
Parents need to be wary about using jealousy as a catch-all excuse
Now that my daughters are getting older, I try to avoid using jealousy as a rationalization for when they are feeling left out or hurt by others for a myriad of reasons.
Here are a few reasons why:
Reduces the need for self-examination.
When we write off other people’s behavior as jealous, it eliminates the opportunity to consider our role in the situation.
How can teens learn that their actions impact others’ responses if we simply blame jealousy as the answer?
Most of us want to avoid conflict, so we justify behavior instead of addressing it. Encourage your teens to be vulnerable and ask why they weren’t included. Sometimes it is inadvertent, and sometimes it will demonstrate that a friendship isn’t what it seemed.
When we tell our teens that people are constantly jealous of them, it promotes big heads. If we constantly tell our young people that other people are jealous of them, whether because of their appearance, friendships, achievements, or grades, how can they deal with failure when they get out into the real world?
There can be a thing such as too much self-esteem. In our Kim Kardashian culture, we shouldn’t assume each time someone dislikes our actions, it’s because they are jealous or the nefarious “hater.” This I-can-do-no-wrong mentality is a dangerous way to live.
Instead, we should encourage our teens to reflect on their actions, engage with others, and own up to their mistakes. Very rarely is conflict one-sided.
Decreases the opportunity for empathy–and, more importantly, grace.
The pressure on young people today is tremendous. From looks and grades to social media presence and athletics, the burden to be the best weighs heavy on our most impressionable minds.
This also creates a culture of envy and unconfident youth who do not know how to escape the stories they create in their minds of their peers’ perfect lives.
Often, when someone hates on you, it’s because of their own insecurities and their perceived perception of your life and actions. This is not the time to rub it in their face by acting even more confident.
It is not our job to teach other people a lesson on how we perceive a situation. Instead, it’s an opportunity to extend kindness and grace. It will usually be ill-received, but we shouldn’t stop trying.
I encourage my teens to compliment someone they feel is sizing them up. There is power in acknowledging what you admire in another person, and it can change the dynamic of a relationship.
On the flip side, do not acknowledge a snide remark someone else makes about an accomplishment. Instead of being defensive, take the higher ground and simply do not acknowledge it.
Letting go of the need to defend yourself releases you from the burden of others’ perceived opinions. Plus, it stops the negativity dead in its tracks — it’s tough to have an argument with only one person.
That being said, if there is a pattern of snide comments or damaging behavior, it’s important to practice self-distancing and boundaries. Learning not to engage with negative people is an important life lesson as well.
Recently I watched a gaggle of kids in my neighborhood playing a game. It was a mixture of children who lived on our street and friends of friends.
Out of the corner of my eye, I watched as a sad ten-year-old boy slinked over to his dad, telling him he was feeling left out.
The father’s response: “Don’t be ridiculous. If you want to play, just tell them you want to play.”
And off he went. No drama, no attempt to decipher the other kids’ thoughts. Just a swift kick in the pants to go after what he wanted.
Because I am the mom of girls, I am deep in the weeds of mean girl culture, and when we tell our daughters consistently that girls are jealous of them, we are perpetuating a stereotype we’ve lived with for too long.
While insecurity is still a major problem — and the main reason for the “Mommy Wars” — jealousy should not be the go-to excuse in our feminist toolbox.
We must teach our kids how to navigate difficult relationships and improve communication instead of merely writing off behavior as a jealous rage.
Jealousy isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s human nature. It’s natural to feel envy from time to time, and it can be a motivator to go after what we want.
Fighting off the green-eyed monster is hard, whether you’re the one experiencing the emotions or on the receiving end.
What’s important, though, is to teach kids — especially our tweens and teens — that you can repair relationships while protecting our hearts.
Imagine the power we’d give our teens then?