Kids and conflict—they’re bound to cross paths at one point or another, especially as your kids get older. Every person will have conflict throughout his or her life. That's what sin does to the world. But it seems that preteens go through more than their share. Their bodies are going one direction and their emotions in another. School is harder and parents expect more, but a preteen’s brain is going through serious changes and it's hard to keep up. To make things worse, all their friends are changing too. At the worst, they get into fights and arguments with their friends. At the least, there’s a lot of confusion.
What should your child do when friends get confusing? When his friends don't like the same things as him anymore, or they make him mad? Are they bullying? Do they not like him anymore? Or is it something different?
There are at least three basic reasons your child could be having conflict with his friends. We encourage you to read the following and share it with your preteen—whether in your own words or by printing it out for your preteen to read. Then, take some time to sit with your child and talk through the questions at the end. Communicating with your child this way could make a big difference in the way he or she interacts with friends!
Do you know the story of the Tower of Babel? You can find it in Genesis 11. This is a few generations after the Flood—Noah was probably still around somewhere. God had told the people (Noah's grandkids and great-grandkids and great-great-grandkids) to move all over the earth. Some did. But a whole lot of them stayed in one place and built a huge tower to prove how great they were.
How did God get them to break up and go their separate ways? He changed their language. When they built the tower, they all spoke one language—the language God gave Adam and Eve (we don't know which one that was, or even if it exists anymore). One day, people woke up and everyone spoke one of several different languages. Which ones? We don't know for sure, but it's reasonable to guess they were the proto-languages that we got the languages of the world from. Anyway, when the people who built the tower couldn't all communicate together, they split up and moved all over the world.
Ever since then, people have had conflict because it's so hard to communicate. Sometimes because we don't say what we're feeling. Sometimes because we don't know how to say what we're feeling. And a lot of times because we don't listen when our friends are trying to communicate.
How do you resolve conflict if you have a problem with communication? Ask questions. Then listen to the answer! Do you actually listen? When they ask you to stop pinching them or talking in class or stealing their chips? Think about how you would feel if your friend was picking on you and refused to stop when you asked.
Sometimes we don't want to listen. We don't want to hear what we're doing wrong. We're too proud or ashamed or scared. Part of being a good friend is deciding your friend is more important than being proud.
After you listen to your friend, then you can communicate your feelings. Understand it doesn't mean your friend will do what you want. Maybe she can't, or maybe she doesn't want to. Not getting what you want all the time is part of growing up. You have to learn how to have a good time anyway.
You can only fix a communication breakdown by listening and talking about how you feel.
One of the most important things to consider when your friend hurts your feelings is this: was he mean on purpose? Or did he hurt you by accident? There's a difference between hurting someone on purpose, which is cruel, and hurting someone on accident through carelessness.
Carelessness is when you're not paying attention. You know what you want to do and you just do it without thinking. You're not thinking about what someone else wants or how that person is feeling— sometimes just because you're having so much fun and you don't want to slow down.
I bet you know how it feels from the other side. Have you ever watched as your friend left you to play with someone else? Or interrupted you when you're in the middle of a story? Or reset your video game? That's carelessness. It doesn't mean your friend doesn't like you—it just means she's being careless.
We all do this, though! Maybe you want to make the new kid at school feel welcome, so you choose her as a partner, not noticing that your old friend feels left out. Or you're so excited to see your friend that you jump on him or punch him in the arm, and never realize it hurts. There's a million different ways we can be careless when it comes to our friends.
One example in the Bible about the difference between carelessness and cruelty is Joseph and his brothers (starting in Genesis 37). Joseph had a dream that basically told him one day he would be his older brothers' boss. Maybe he was careless, and maybe he was being a pickle-head, but he told his brothers about the dream. You can probably understand why his brothers got mad. “Why is this little pip-squeak talking about being our boss and saying that we'll bow down to him?” Joseph was careless with his words and it led to conflict.
His brothers, however, were not careless. They were cruel. They knew they were hurting Joseph, but they didn't care. In fact, they wanted to hurt him. The older brothers were out in the fields with their sheep and Joseph went to check on them. When Joseph got there, his brothers threw him in a pit and sold him to slavers.
Selling your little brother, no matter how annoying he is, is not careless. It's cruel. Of course, God used the situation for good. Joseph was sold to a guy in Egypt, went to prison, but then became a great ruler. He not only saved his family, he also watched his big brothers bow down to him.
What do you do if your friend is being careless? First, realize how often you've been careless in the past. Then remember that the Bible says to forgive. How many times? Jesus told Peter as many times as it takes. Eventually, when things are calmer, let your friend know how you feel (communicate!). But in the moment, forgive.
Of course, if your friend is being cruel, tell an adult!
If your conflict isn't caused by communication problems or carelessness, it may be caused by circumstances. Circumstances are things that happen that neither you nor your friend can control. Are you mad she has to leave early? Maybe her parents need her home. Or maybe your PE teacher tells you to play basketball and your friends are all taller than you. They can't help that, and it's okay if they have fun, even if you're frustrated.
You may not be able to change your circumstances, but you do get to choose how you feel. That's a really hard thing to get a hold of, but it's part of growing in maturity. You can choose to be thankful that your friend came over for the time she could. You can choose to cheer your friends on in basketball— and even laugh when you mess up. Learning to appreciate good things even when you don't get everything you want is a huge part of growing up.
Paul realized this when he was in prison. In Acts 16, he and Silas were in prison when an earthquake freed them. They stayed, though, and told the jailor about Jesus.
They'd only been in jail a little while that time. But when Paul wrote Philippians, he was imprisoned for two years. Paul shares his secret in Philippians 4:12: he learned to be content in every circumstance. He wasn’t jealous when circumstances put him in prison while other apostles were free (for the time being). It didn't even cross his mind to be mad at his friends because their circumstances were different. His friendship with them was more important.
You have a choice when you get frustrated with circumstances. You can get mad and grouchy and pout. Or you can find something else to do or even think about the good stuff that's going on. But first, you have to stop and decide: Do you want to get angry? Or would you rather have fun as best as you can?
1. Does your friend seem upset with you? Ask him why. Then listen!
2. Are you upset with your friend? Think very hard about why. Start simple: How do you feel? What did she do? Was it a communication problem, was she careless, or was it circumstances she couldn't control?
3. Can you think of a time you were careless and hurt your friend's feelings? It's pretty easy to do, isn't it?
4. What's the difference between a friend being careless and someone being cruel? Why should you forgive a careless friend? How can you communicate how you feel?
5. What are some circumstances that cause problems that neither you nor your friends have control over? Can you be happy for your friends even if you're stuck in a situation that isn't great? Why would this be a good skill to have the rest of your life?
Kersley Fitzgerald is a former Air Force officer, former Air Force wife, and current editor of Got Questions’ blog site, Blogos.org. She and her husband adopted JT from Thailand when he was 18 months old. He has spent the ensuing years teaching her more about God than any theology course could.