The Upside to Conflicts in Middle School
I’m sitting at a busy lunch table full of sixth graders. There is energy you can’t put your finger on and a deafening hum that continues from the first lunch all the way to the last. All 150 students are engaged in the same activity at the same time: communicating. With each word expressed in this lunchroom, lessons are being learned that will be filed away and used the next time there is a similar social situation. Sound confusing and overwhelming to keep up with? Just ask one of these sixth graders, and they will tell you that it absolutely is!
Teachers in middle school will often comment that being with their students from one day to another is like playing tug-of-war. For every day a student makes progress, the next day he or she might fall behind, have a behavioral slip-up, and/or refuse to work. Parents might say they have never seen their children so sullen at times, and they miss the carefree nature of their son or daughter. However, these things only mean that adolescents are acting appropriately for their age.
Middle schoolers are constantly making big connections, which lead to big lessons. These students will leave the lunchroom and continue communicating their way through endless life lessons until they can stand on their own two feet and approach independence. It’s going to be rocky at times, but if students can pick up the right tools along the way, they will be able to face challenges and overcome obstacles with ease. Luckily, they have supportive adults to help them learn how to navigate through struggle and resolve conflicts throughout these tumultuous years!
Conflict and a Changing Mind
Because middle school students are fighting for their place in adulthood, they need to have a lot of practice with properly resolving conflict. This not only smooths out the edges of their communication, but it also gives them plenty of practice to work out issues within themselves. In elementary school, it was more socially acceptable to react emotionally to express dissatisfaction. In leaving the uninhibited freedom of childhood, adolescents are entering a whole new set of social standards to live by. The desire to fit in grows stronger, and they have to learn how to do so while retaining their true selves.
Positive conflict resolution helps the adolescent join the old self and the new self. Conflict resolution skills are essential to gaining empathy, learning to get along with others, and seeing that one can overcome obstacles peacefully. Every time a student is involved in conflict resolution, a piece of her or his expanding life puzzle is put into place, and the adolescent gets closer to achieving stability. Middle school students’ behavior is mainly driven by inner conflicts and simultaneous battles with peers and society. Conflict resolution doesn’t just occur between two people; it occurs between one preteen and the world. (Okay, that might be a little dramatic, but hey, when in Rome!)
Embrace the Rebellion
Ever met an adult who didn’t go through an animal-rights or antiestablishment phase? From protesting processed foods to boycotting certain brands of makeup, adolescents question what was previously accepted and make room for reformed opinions. This often comes to the counselor’s office with students who are taking a stand against a friend. To an adult, quarreling adolescents might look as if they are fighting over nothing, but these fights are often part of students’ changing belief systems. At home, rebellion might happen in the form of a student who refuses to do homework because she or he would rather play video games. In other words, conflict between what the student should do and what the student wants to do. In each of these conflicts, students can benefit from learning how to find common ground with others and how to think through consequences.
The Arguing Is Good
Think of the verbal and nonverbal communication you used with your parents when you were in middle school. The eye rolls, the groans, the disgusted facial cues, oh my! These hallmarks of adolescent communication might make us adults rip out our hair, but they are actually healthy signs that students are searching for an identity that is separate from that of their parents. By constantly questioning and exploring the world around them, they are making cognitive, personhood, moral, and social connections. As this happens with authority figures, ever-shifting friendships, environment, and peers, students can learn healthy ways to embrace change and accept others.
Working Through the Turmoil
Perspective is by far one of the greatest things anyone can learn from conflict. Students who are in a social conflict gain empathy by trying to see things from another person’s point of view. I always remind students that understanding someone else’s perception of something is not admitting defeat or excusing what they have done to you. Switching perspectives is simply taking a step back and closely evaluating where some lines of communication may have been crossed or misconstrued.
How can educators and parents best provide an environment that will help adolescents through this rough time? Give students space to work things out on their own. Provide a safe space and a compassionate mirror for them to view themselves through. Once a resolution has been reached, walk back through what worked to reinforce the lesson learned. Common conflict resolution steps are stating your experience, listening to the experience of others, finding middle ground, and making commitments to aid future behaviors. By breaking down the steps with students, you can teach them to take a step back and view the situation through a more inclusive lens.
Know When There Are Other Things in the Mix
While conflict is a natural part of adolescence, strong defiant behaviors might also be a window into more serious troubles that are brewing. Though it is natural for a young student to battle for autonomy, overly argumentative behavior might mean an adolescent is struggling with a deeper loss of control. It’s here that a counselor might ask pointed questions to elicit some information and see if there is another layer to the frustration. My go-tos are:
- Has anything changed at home?
- I can’t remember, do you live with mom or dad?
- Do you have friends to vent to?
- Do you find that you are angry often?
Frustration and rebellion are a natural part of adolescent changes, but it is important to also gauge when students are crying out for help in a situation that is beyond their ability to tackle. Resolving conflict breeds resilience and culminates in healthy individuals who can handle obstacles and work peacefully with their environment. While developing these skills, adolescents will experience failures but will also find surprising and rewarding successes.
Stephanie Filio is a middle school counselor in Virginia Beach. She received her undergraduate degree in interdisciplinary studies from the University of Virginia and her M.Ed. in counseling from Old Dominion University. In a discussion with one of her UVA professors about her desire to stay in school forever, her mentor wisely responded, “If you want to be a lifelong learner, go into education,” and so she found her place. Prior to her six years as a school counselor, Stephanie worked in private education, specializing in standardized tests, test preparation, and future planning. She writes about her career and hobbies at her blog,Weekend Therapy, and can be found on Twitter @steffschoolcoun. Stephanie also enjoys spending time with her books, crafts, and family.