Making sense of conflict, and saving face in the teen world

Exploring perceptions about drama, gossip, punking and pranking. Research highlights differences between how teens and adults think about interpersonal conflict, bullying and aggression.

Have you ever overhead the adolescents in your life describe hurtful situations taking place within their peer groups? The first thing that happens to many adults is that our antennae go up – after all, we care deeply about the wellbeing of young people and want to protect them from potentially harmful situations. One of the most helpful things we can do before confronting teens about these situations or before we try to address what’s happening is to deepen our understanding of teens’ perspectives about what’s going on

In her book It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, researcher and scholar danah boyd writes about what she and her colleague Alice Marwick have learned in their studies about teens’ experiences with interpersonal conflict. They specifically explored interpersonal conflicts that take place in front of audiences – both face-to-face and online. Several findings came out of their work that can help adults better understand what may be going on for young people:

  • When hearing young people talking about interpersonal conflict, adults often react by labeling what’s going on as “bullying” and by wanting to determine who’s at fault, how to stop it and what kinds of consequences there should be. This is complicated by the fact that many adults tend to use the word bullying as an umbrella term to describe a wide range of behaviors, ranging from normal peer conflict to criminal acts of aggression and harassment. Teens often have very different perspectives about what’s going on within these interpersonal conflict situations and how to deal with them.
  • When teens did describe situations as involving bullying, they used the word more conservatively than adults and in ways that are more aligned with “scholarly” definitions. For example, when describing a situation as bullying, teens often remarked about the power imbalance aspect that’s within the common definition of bullying. Although many teens reported that bullying was not a significant issue within their peer groups, many of the examples that they did label as bullying involved situations in which someone was repeatedly tormented for being different in some way.
  • High-school aged teens viewed bullying as a middle-school issue associated with immaturity, childishness and something they’ve outgrown. What was clear in the interviews, however is that hurtful behaviors and situations don’t disappear during high school. Instead, teens consistently reframed and labeled these situations as “drama,” and they used words like “ridiculous,” “trivial” and “a normal part of life” to describe them.
  • It’s important to delve deeper into the notion of drama, which can be described as interpersonal conflict that takes place in front of an audience (and often on social media). Labeling these situations as “drama” allows teens to frame the social dynamics and emotional impacts as unimportant and provides an alternative to feeling like a victim or a bully. In other words, those involved with drama may not label themselves as aggressive or weak – instead, they regard themselves as part of “normal” situations in which they have choices. This can help teens save face, build agency, feel a sense of power and see themselves as mature individuals who are navigating hard situations in competent ways.
  • ŸDon’t discount the need to consider issues of gender when we talk about drama – especially when hearing people say things like “girls are so mean,” “girls love to fight over boys,” or “girls are so into drama.” The notion of drama perpetuates a value system in which interpersonal subjects and relationships are seen as essentially female, trivial and unimportant. It’s important to keep in mind that, while boys feel cultural pressure not to engage in these “traditionally” female practices, they are often knowingly at the center of “girls’ drama.” They also directly engage in social conflict and gossip, but often choose to label these behaviors as punking or pranking.
  • Although teens described drama, gossip, punking and pranking as being a “normal” part of life that they were trying to navigate on their own, deeper conversations revealed that many of these behaviors were incredibly hurtful and did indeed cross into the realms of bullying, harassment and serious forms of aggression. This speaks to the importance of inviting young people into conversations that challenge the notion of normalizing and trivializing behaviors that can have negative, serious and long-term impacts on health and wellbeing.

So what are our roles as caring adults within the lives of teens who are trying to build autonomy and independence? As parents and caregivers, we can help young people develop empathy, resilience and mindfulness. We can also help them (and ourselves!) examine ways in which cultural and media messages contribute to what many of us regard as normal and acceptable. As educators, youth workers, family members and community members who want to address issues of meanness, cruelty, bullying bias and harassment within our youth settings, we can make sure that we’re doing this alongside young people by inviting them to be part of youth-adult partnerships in these efforts.

Michigan State University Extension provides a variety of resources related to the positive development of children and adolescents. These efforts include the Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments initiative, which includes a curriculum designed to help adults and youth work in partnership to create positive relationships and prevent issues like bullying, cyberbullying and bias-based behaviors.

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