What Every Parent Should Know: How to Help Your Kids Deal With Peer Conflicts at School

Parenting expert Annie Fox shares insights on how to help teens handle peer-related stress and cyberbullying.
Social media has elevated bullying to a new level. (Photo: Cultura/Axel Bernstorff)
Oct 1, 2012

Each week parenting expert Annie Fox will share her wit and wisdom for teaching kids to be good people and strong learners.

I’ve been answering teen email since 1997. The ongoing Q&A has made me an expert on the social garbage many 11-17 year olds slog through every day. Typical teen questions include:

  • What do you do if your friend is mad at you but won’t tell you why?
  • What do you do if someone is nice to you but not nice to your friend?
  • What do you do when friends pressure you to do stuff you don’t want to do, but you’re afraid not to because they’ll make fun of you?

Sound familiar? These might be the same issues we once dealt with, but our children aren’t responding to them the way we once did before social media. When 21st-century kids experience peer conflicts, online or off, they typically respond with fierce social aggression (aka verbal violence) that damages individuals in profound ways and pollutes school climates everywhere.

Two weeks ago I spoke with nearly a thousand students at a couple of international schools, one in Singapore and another in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The topic: Real Friends vs. the Other Kind, based on my book. In each presentation I talked about stress, the brain, and something I call peer approval addiction. Even though I was 7,000 miles from home, the questions coming from these students expressed the same conflicts and emotional confusion I’ve heard repeatedly from kids in San Jose, St. Louis, and Philly.

More: The Key to ‘How Children Succeed’: Hint...It’s Not Standardized Tests

Back in the day, when we had a problem with someone at school, we went home for dinner with the family, did homework, and watched TV. Sometimes we even read a book to take our minds off school and social garbage. The next morning in class, combatants were usually less combative and we were all better able to concentrate on algebra and the rest of what we were expected to learn.

By prioritizing character education at home and at school, young people can learn to responsibly manage their intense emotions.

Today’s kids are mind-melded with peers 24/7. School and home are equally conducive for texting and getting more people involved in the drama du jour. Status anxiety regularly submerges so much mental real estate inside the teen brain, our students are often flooded with destructive emotions. They can’t think clearly in that state. No one can. Which is why the adults who live and work with kids need to teach emotional intelligence skill-building along with ethics and social courage.

By prioritizing character education at home and at school, young people can learn to responsibly manage their intense emotions (even when someone baits them with an inflammatory text).

It’s not realistic to believe that we can control social media content. That’s not the goal. The goal is to help tweens and teens rein in their destructive impulses. Emotional buttons will inevitably get pushed, online and off, and when they do, all we can hope to control is our own response so that no one gets hurt.

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