She’s Sugar and Spice but not so Nice

It starts young. Your child comes home crying because Stacey ditched her to play with Amy at recess. She told her that what she wanted to play was "stupid." The next day, they are back to being BFFs but you cringe knowing that it won't be long before Stacey strikes again. Before you know it, your daughter is a tween and the "mean" is just getting worse.

You may recall the popular movie Mean Girls in which two junior high cliques of teenage girls become socially aggressive toward each other. They play spiteful tricks and say and write cruel things behind one another's backs. While the movie is a fictional comedy, there is a large degree of truth in the groups' cold-blooded behavior that’s not funny at all. Sadly, girls sometimes deliberately mistreat other girls their own age.

We often think that boys are more aggressive than girls. But in fact, girls are equally as aggressive. They simply use different methods to express it. Boys generally act out their aggression physically. Typically by hitting, shoving, or kicking. Girls tend to utilize subtler expressions, including those exhibited in the movie such as gossiping, group exclusion and rumor spreading.

Mean girl behavior, typically referred to by professionals as relational or social aggression and by terrified parents as bullying, has existed for as long as there have been ponytails to pull and notes to pass. But, today’s insults are texted, tweeted and posted instead.

Researchers are gaining more and more insights into what drives girl bullies and why they so desperately need help.  Some characteristics of a girl bully are jealousy, feelings of superiority, poor impulse control and lack of empathy. Girls often bully when their basic needs of acceptance, belonging, control and meaningful existence are not met.

The effects of bullying can be devastating and long lasting for the victims as well  as the mean girls. For instance, girls who are relationally aggressive are often vicious, controlling and manipulative. These traits can lead to long-term unhappiness and even depression. Moreover, mean girls are never satisfied with themselves or others, which also can lead to addictive behaviors and even eating disorders.

Unfortunately, many adults don’t view relational aggression as a serious issue. In fact, most adults have very little sympathy for the girls who are targeted and often think being mean is just a normal part of girl behavior.

Although mean girl behavior used to typically emerge during middle-school, it's occurring at younger ages in recent years. Girls start forming distinct cliques as early as third grade and treat classmates with hurtful intention. In kindergarten through second grade, girls usually don’t intend to hurt but they are trying establish their place on the social ladder and don't realize what pain they are actually causing.

One of the hardest things about all of this is that the bully might be disguised as a best friend. These yo-yo friendships can be destructive for the girl who doesn't know day-to-day if her friend will play with her or round up groups of friends and create a club that only she cannot be a part of. Research shows that the collection of mean-girl experiences over time significantly impact a girl's self-esteem and even her ability to learn.

So what can we do to help? Anti-bullying programs usually focus on managing physical aggression often overlooking the relational aggression which girls experience. Schools and teachers need to become more aware of this growing problem.

 If there's a safety issue where your child is in danger or endangering someone else, get professional help. What should parents do when they suspect that their daughter is being bullied by a mean girl?

  • Get the facts. Find out what’s happening, who’s doing it, how long it’s been going on and if the teacher knows.
  • Make sure your child knows that it’s not her fault.
  • Talk about ways of responding to mean girls’ behavior. Role-play with her, acting out the different scenarios she might encounter.
  • Encourage your daughter to get involved in activities that focus on her talents and interests, especially activities outside of school and even outside of town. This will help her form new friendships outside of the “cliques” and put her with kids who share common interests. It may help your child realize that the mean girls are not “all that.”
  • Tell her your own story if you were bullied as a child. What did you do in response? Did it work?

On the other hand, if you think your child is a mean girl, here are some steps you can take:

  • Define bullying for her, in its many forms. This includes teasing, name-calling, socially ostracizing, gossiping and cyber-bullying. Mean girls are often unaware that their behavior is bullying.
  • Tell her that bullying is NOT acceptable behavior and layout the penalties  and make sure to enforce them. For example, if she is cyber-bullying, take away her mobile phone or restrict computer privileges for a period of time.
  • Work out a way for her to apologize to those she has hurt and help her understand how her negative behavior has affected the person she has bullied.
  • Seek help or counseling if it doesn’t stop.
  • If the school contacts you, stay calm and try not to become angry and defensive. Make an effort to really listen. Remember, this is about the well-being of your child.

Underneath the facade, the “mean girl” is not evil. She is just a girl who, like the rest of us, wants to be loved and accepted. Sometimes, though, even the most innocent of motives can lead us astray.