There are those little girls who sneer “You can’t play with me today” with disdain in their voices. And there are those little girls with aching hearts who hear those words and shrink back from their peers, unsure of what just happened. Mean girls are infiltrating our daughter’s classes, clubs, and neighborhoods, and they are often led by their parents. Girls learn and display these behaviors as young as preschool ages and they are often the direct result of negative parenting strategies being used.
These subtle acts of bullying – formally known as relational aggression – are mean behaviors that target individuals or social groups. It is the gossip that is spread, the kids who face social exclusion, and the negative control that is perpetrated. And it is beginning in preschool with our girls and growing with them as they move into high school and beyond.
New research shows that relational aggression behaviors form in the early years, in children as young as 3 to 5 years of age. In younger children the aggression is quite direct, with little girls saying things like “I don’t want you coming to my house” or “Your hair is greasy and it smells, so I don’t want to sit next to you.” As harsh as these words are, the pain mean girls can cause as they get older gets deeper, because sadly, they get better at manipulating the situations and disguising their mean streaks.
Who are the mean girls?
- They are socially savvy and adept at making friends – when they want to do so.
- They can be popular, often because they are intimidating and other girls don’t want to dare to cross them.
- They can be manipulating.
- They know how to sting with words with as much pain as a punch delivers.
- They can be the preschooler next door. Research shows that girls even as young as 3 can use peer pressure to get their ways.
- They often learn these tactics from their mothers and fathers.
- Research shows that mean girls are more likely to have parents who use psychological control and manipulative tactics in discipline. These parents also use negative forms of communication, such as avoiding eye contact, laying guilt trips, and withdrawing their acts and words of love in order to elicit the behavior they want in their children.
Why are mean girls dangerous?
Relational aggression is not as obvious as the boy who throws a punch on the playground or the girl who kicks a rival classmate. It is emotional and psychological bullying, and it can be just as damaging as physically aggressive behaviors. Sometimes relational aggression can be even more damaging as it is not recognized as much as other negative behaviors, but it still has long lasting effects.
Research shows that girls who are picked on as children by other girls can suffer anxiety and depression and that it can stay with them for years to come, even into adulthood. Maybe this explains why I still remember one particular mean girl from my childhood, who could cut through your confidence with words laced in thorns.
Advances in technology also make it easier for mean girls to perpetrate their harsh words and actions. The covertness and subtle ways they have mastered as manipulators is even more powerful when it comes from behind the veiled curtain of the internet, where everything is not as it seems.
How can parents help their daughters face mean girls?
- Keep an open line of communication so that your daughter can talk with you about her experiences.
- Teach your daughter different ways to approach mean girls – ignoring the words and behaviors, countering those behaviors with resiliency, and aligning themselves with positive friends.
- Teach your daughter to take back her own identity. Mean girls often hurt others in order to control a reaction or a situation, so if the reaction is lost, the motivation for hurting is also removed.
- Let your daughter know if she doesn’t know how to handle the situation that you are there to help her.
- Encourage your child to participate in activities where you know there isn’t a history of relational aggression.
Researcher Dianna Murray-Close is working on an initiative that would bring education to classrooms to counteract relational aggression. She feels that the key is to changing the context of the situations. Mean girls are much less likely to be mean if their social payback is removed. It needs to be uncool to use relational aggression, and kids need to feel empowered to walk away from it with confidence instead of in fear. Parents also need to learn more about how their own interactions with their children can inadvertently teach them to be mean, and we need to move away from a place where this is viewed as tough and cool.
The other evening I saw a sweet, outgoing young girl be slapped with the spirit of a mean girl. The kind who says, “You can’t play with me” without any real reason why. My heart ached, as I recalled that mean girl from my own girlhood. The older I get, however, I realize what I hope this sweet young girl will soon too see – those mean girls are the friends you won’t miss, and the pain they cause you is more about how horrible they are feeling on the inside than about what they really think of you.