“How’d your day go, buddy?”
I was crouching down by Larry’s bed to pray with him before he went to sleep.
He was in fourth grade, and I’ll never forget his response.
“I lost all of my friends today.” He spoke in his typical low, flat tone with very little emotion.
It broke my heart.
“How could you have possibly lost all your friends in one day?” I was in doubt.
“I don’t know. They just all said they don’t like me any more.”
I can’t fully recall what happened that day, but I know a few things. First, whatever traumatic social events unfolded left Larry feeling friendless. Second, no parent ever wants a child to feel that way. Third, he was probably as much at fault as all of his ex-friends. Fourth, somewhere between fourth grade and his senior year, he and his friends worked it all out. Fifth, he didn’t need me or Mom to “freak out” about it. And finally, God allowed him to go through that situation to grow and to develop his youthful relational skills.
Had we overreacted, become defensive, called the principal, and gotten angry at all the other kids and parents, we would have done nothing but made a mess and helped Larry miss a vital growing moment. He wouldn’t have discovered that with or without friends, he still has Jesus, he still has Dad and Mom, and he’s going to be okay. Those are valuable lessons.
What do you do when your teens have a meltdown in their relational world? It happens. It happens in every school, every church, and every youth group. It happens because all of our kids can be carnal, and they need to learn how to love like Jesus.
Today, the typical parental response to social conflict or injustice is a defensive spirit and self-segregation.
The thinking goes like this, “If my child is having a hard time in this environment, it’s the environment’s fault; I will remove my child and find another environment.” There are extreme situations where this may be the correct action—but it usually isn’t.
In most cases of normal, social conflict and relational stress, self-segregation and a defensive spirit is the wrong answer because it doesn’t solve the problem; it merely runs from it. Working through these things leads to growth, reconciliation, and selfless, Christlike love.
God Highly Values People and Relationships
God places a very high value on our relationships. Jesus repeatedly commanded us to love one another. He must have known this would be a continual challenge.
“A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another” (John 13:34).
Much of the New Testament instruction to the local church revolves around the interpersonal relationships of Christians. We are commanded to work through things, to forgive, to be tender-hearted, to forebear one another in love, to serve one another in love, to submit to one another, to be gentle, longsuffering, and gracious.
These responses are such a different portrait than the carnal and vicious responses that Christians often pour out upon one another over the most trivial of matters. We are so often un-Christlike—especially when we feel that our children have been handled unjustly by a peer or an authority figure. Few things reveal our flesh more quickly and vociferously.
Yet one of the most powerful ways we help our children grow is by allowing them to work through these struggles rather than swooping in to segregate and sanitize them.
How are you helping your young person handle relational conflict and navigate social difficulty?
Three Types of Teens
Generally there are three types of teens relationally:
1. Relationally Dominant
These are kids who are outgoing but unrestrained. They jump into the center of attention and stay there—even if it requires them to be rude and thoughtless. Their social growth needs temperance.
2. Relationally Passive
These are kids who withdraw from social interaction and wait for the world to be friendly to them. They are self-focused and good at blaming everybody else for being unfriendly. They are easy to not notice because they try not to be noticed, and then often play the victim when they aren’t.
3. Relationally Balanced
These are the kids whose social and relational skills are developing with reasonable maturity. Their insecurities do not paralyze them. They participate in conversations and group fellowship without having to control it or be the center of it. They have friends because they show themselves friendly (Proverbs 18:24).
The teens above (and their families) tend to handle conflict differently. The dominant tend to have social struggles with others who are dominant. The withdrawn tend to complain and blame everybody else. The balanced tend to grow and work through misunderstandings.
In brief, let’s explore some guiding considerations and principles that will help you lead your teen from social strife to spiritual maturity.
Social strife and conflict is inevitable where there are people. No human environment is free from social strife. Expect it.
Our kids will work hard to fix blame upon others. None of my children have ever come home from school saying, “Dad, I’m unfriendly and relationally immature, and I’m burdened about my carnality and how I mistreat people.” They always want to say it’s someone else’s fault. We are all very good at telling a story in our own favor.
Jesus’ instructions for relational conflict is positive engagement. Look at His instructions in Luke 6:27-36:
“But I say unto you which hear, Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you, Bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you. And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and him that taketh away thy cloke forbid not to take thy coat also…But love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be the children of the Highest: for he is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil. Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful.”
When we are willfully mistreated, Jesus instructs us to turn it around through positive engagement…
Love them that hurt you.
Do good to them that hate you.
Bless them that spite you.
Give to them that take from you.
Do good to them as God the Father has done to you.
Be merciful as God has shown you mercy.
Do you lead your child to respond biblically or carnally?
Does your response tend toward grace or “get even”? Do your reactions lead your child to react in the flesh or to respond in the Spirit?
Responding to Social Strife
Here are some practical thoughts on responding well to social strife:
Pray for wisdom and discernment. There is always more to the story than you can see. You need to see God’s perspective and help your child grow in Christlikeness.
Have realistic (not idealistic) expectations of people environments. If you expect your church, youth group, or school to be free of such struggles, that’s not realistic.
Expect that your family member shares as much blame as the others. Usually both parties have sinned and mistreated the other.
Don’t react to perceptions or misunderstandings. Too often we speak first and think later. Cast down imaginations (2 Corinthians 10:5), don’t overreact, but seek to understand the whole story.
Look in the mirror first and take heed unto thyself. Generally speaking, if you offend me, the problem is me. Psalm 119:165 teaches, “Great peace have they which love thy law: and nothing shall offend them.”
See every conflict as an opportunity to learn to love like Jesus. Use the teaching moment this way—”Jesus is giving you a chance to learn how to love someone who wasn’t nice to you….”
Lead your family to respond biblically, not spitefully. Plan a response that honors the Lord and edifies others. Bake the offender some brownies—everybody knows it’s impossible to be angry with someone who bakes you brownies.
Be patient through the hard seasons. Be a good listener and have an understanding heart. You can comfort the distressed without condoning sinful responses.
Be approachable as a parent and a team player with other parents. Have a humble, team spirit with other parents and work together toward resolution. Don’t accuse.
Refuse to let emotions make the decisions. Emotions should not be in the driver’s seat of these situations. If your child’s emotions have the power to stir you up against other Christian brothers, those emotions have too much power.
Refuse to take up your child’s offense. Your wrong reaction justifies the child’s wrong reaction. Wise parents settle emotions rather than stir them up.
Continue to respond biblically with patient endurance. Growth in these areas is sometimes slow and lasts for a season. Keep hitting the reset button and hang in there with patience!
Enlist the help of godly mediators. When helpful, have a youth pastor or teacher help mediate a resolution between offended parties.
Don’t run from conflict. Grow through it. Don’t be a defensive parent. You will dramatically stunt your child’s spiritual growth.
You’ve probably heard the story of the man who decided to help a struggling butterfly out of its cocoon by cutting it open. In doing so, he removed the struggle that would have prepared the butterfly for flight.
Even so, there are some struggles that our children need as they prepare for adulthood—and wise parents will allow the struggle to prepare the child.
View every social conflict as another opportunity to lead your child from stress to spiritual maturity!