Anyone who spends a lot of time with adolescents is used to hearing about the day-to-day “drama” of peer relationships. For teens prone to anxiety and low self-esteem, even relatively minor conflicts with peers can create elevated distress. These are teens who tend to have difficulty accurately interpreting non-verbal cues and who react strongly to verbal slights. When these teens encounter opportunities to express their emotions and opinions, they tend to fear (or predict) negative outcomes. In her book, “Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls,” clinical psychologist Lisa Damour, Ph.D. describes the varied ways teens respond to conflict: bulldozer, doormat, doormat with spikes, and pillar.
A “bulldozer” is self-focused and ends up hurting others as they prioritize their wants and needs. A “doormat” is other-focused, allowing others to walk over them by not voicing their opinions and emotions. The “doormat with spikes” uses passive aggression and other indirect means to hurt the person they are in conflict with, rather than addressing the problem directly. A “pillar” is someone who stands up for their needs, emotions, and opinions, without hurting others. In my experience, these images resonate with my clients. Using these labels, teens seem to be able to identify patterns of conflict resolution in themselves and their peers.
We want our teens to learn to recognize what their tendency is, and to learn to develop a health ability to express their needs and opinions without hurting others. Parents should also be aware of their own tendencies. Our children learn from watching us. How we manage conflicts in our relationships is on display for our children. Below are some ways to promote the skill of being a pillar, both for you and your teen.
- Start by being aware of what’s happening inside of you. Pay attention to your thoughts, feelings, and sensations. Pause to notice your default response (i.e., bulldozer or doormat) to develop a more intentional pillar response.
- Express your experience first, rather than starting with blame. These “I-statements” may sound like: I felt left out when I heard that you might not want me in your group for Homecoming; I need to say no to helping today because each time I end up not having enough time to do my work; I felt confused when I saw you roll your eyes at me, I thought you would agree with me, and even if you don’t, I hope we can respect each other.
- Start with a question to better understand, rather than assume, someone else’s intentions or thoughts. i.e. “What did you mean for me to think when you made that comment about how I act around boys?”
- Practice alone and with someone else to help be aware of tone, non-verbals, and to gain greater comfort.
- As Dr. Damour points out, nonverbal elements are really important to clear communication, problem-solving, and being a pillar. This means that face-to-face communication is essential, and trying to be a pillar via social media or electronic communication is less effective.