The teen years are filled with all types of mean girls; frenemies, fake friends, toxic friends and controlling girls. These mean girl behaviors often leave others feeling hurt, puzzled and distraught. Mean behavior is not “normal” girl behavior but is often excused as “that’s what girls do”. Mean girl behavior is perplexing to adults, let alone youth who have to navigate that inconsistent world of “like you, today, hate you tomorrow”. Unfortunately, mean girl behavior does not end in middle or high school. There are mean adult girls, so learning how to identify mean girls and stand firm in a mean girl culture is a necessary skill.
The “mean” defined for girls is really relational aggression. Bullying among girls is often disguised in hurtful gestures, words, and statements instead of pushes and shoves. This type of bullying is generally subtle and not something that is obvious to others. Many girls employ relationally aggressive approaches such as excluding other girls, spreading rumors, name-calling, and backstabbing, all of which are things both parents and teachers often miss and are difficult to prove occurred.
In this day and age, we can now add cyberbullying to the list of relational aggressive behaviors used by girls against other girls. This can take the form of online gossip, sexual bullying, and other hurtful tactics. Cliques are reinforced in cyberspace when girls post pictures of exclusive parties and events where only a select few were included.
It can be difficult to spot a mean girl, as they are experts at bullying under the radar of teachers, other students, and adults. Mean girls may be considered to be popular with their peers, however, that may not always be the case and this may not be how they perceive themselves. To spot mean girl behavior, we need to observe how a girl interacts with other girls and pay attention to how she feels about herself. Adults have a tendency to not view relational aggression as a big issue, have very little sympathy for the girls who are targeted and often think that being mean is just a “normal” part of girl behavior and bullying is just a part of being a kid.
I want to interject here that bullying is a serious problem that leads to a number of negative effects for victims including suicide. There is a strong link between bullying behaviors and suicide as suggested by a recent bullying-related suicide study in the US and other countries. Bully victims are between 2 to 9 times more likely to consider suicide than non-victims according to studies by Yale University. A study in Britain found that at least half of suicides among young people are related to bullying and ten to fourteen-year-old girls may be at even higher risk for suicide. Finally, according to statistics reported by ABC News, nearly 30 percent of students are either bullies or victims of bullying and approximately 160,000 students stay home from school every day due to the fear of being bullied. Bullying and relational aggression need to be taken seriously. We are losing our youth as a result of these behaviors.
One obvious way to spot a mean girl is to look at how she relates to other girls. If she is regularly in little conflicts with other girls or is surrounded by drama, there may be more to it than just “normal conflict”. Mean girls often are more like frenemies than friends, often backstabbing and gossiping about the girls they claim are their “friends”. Mean girls are the type of people that make you wonder what they say about you when you are not around. They usually have an exclusive group of friends that they do everything with and they may even dress alike at times. Some mean girls are very controlling and as a result, the other girls will follow the leader or risk being forced out of the group. These “followers” do not usually speak up and they are just as guilty of mean girl behavior as the leader. They allow fear of losing their status in the group dictate their actions and they will often exclude or bully others in order to fit in and be accepted instead of voicing their opinion.
One of the best ways to prevent relational aggression is to teach girls to be kind both to others and to themselves. Self-esteem is a must for all girls to be able to walk away from mean girls holding their heads high knowing that is not the group with whom they want to associate. Some girls bully others because they struggle with self-esteem. Some girls remain in toxic friendships because they struggle with self-esteem. Fostering healthy self-esteem will help girls be more confident, sure of their values and beliefs and make better decisions about the type of friendships they want to be a part of. Self-esteem also allows girls to celebrate in each other successes instead of being envious or jealous of someone else’s good fortune.
One way to stop relational aggression is to emphasize that these types of actions are causing someone else a lot of pain. Help your daughter develop empathy for what victims of bullying may be experiencing. This can be done by simply stating a bullying scenario and discussing what all participants may be feeling. Empathy is being lost today because it is so easy to type something mean to someone and press send without having to see the look on the receiver’s face or partake in the pain that what you just sent caused. Encourage your daughter to have more “real” conversations with peers face to face instead of texting.
Another way to help your daughter from engaging in relational bullying or being the target of relational bullying is to ensure she is building solid friendships with others. This can be done by talking to her about what constitutes a healthy friendship. Defining what a fake friend and a mean girl look like are important but more important is discussing with your daughter what she may experience feeling or thinking when having these friends such as “are they talking about me now?”, “I need to wear this to be accepted”, “she told me not to like Judy if I want to still be friends with her but I like Judy and don’t want to be mean to her”. There is a push and pull emotional roller coaster that initially takes place for girls engaging in a mean girl group prior to completely committing to the “rules” of the group. This is when it is easier to disembark and abort completely, so being aware of your daughter’s friend group and how inconsistent her feelings are with this group is important. Don’t just dismiss issues as “girl drama”.
A particular downfall of parents is that we want our kids to be with the “right” groups. We fall into the trap of trying to get our kids paired with the “right” kids, the “right” classrooms, the “right” spots on sports teams and the “right” peer groups. What is “right” to us may not be the “right” fit for our kids. Parents need to take a more hands-off approach and allow kids some freedom in choosing friends and activities that interest them. Be aware, observant and involved but not pushy.
Other ways to help steer your daughter away from being a mean girl or partaking in mean girl behavior is to discuss the dangers of gossiping, backstabbing and rumor spreading. Help her to understand that texting and social media are not always the best ways to discuss important topics or have conflicts. Monitor her social media and phone activity. There is great responsibility with having access to social media and cell phones and youth are not always developmentally ready for such a responsibility. Make sure she is using such things appropriately and help guide her.
A number of girls will engage in relational aggression at some point in their tween and teen years and this fact does not make them bad kids. Most kids have not learned how to deal with social challenges, and unfortunately, there are many new social challenges for kids that their parents did not have growing up. When you see something inappropriate, address it right away as a teaching moment and not a moment to overreact or demean your child. They are learning how to navigate relationships and need the help of adults to do so.
Adults need to take what kids say to us seriously when it is bothering them or they are struggling with what a group is doing to them. Don’t dismiss events as “normal behavior”, “drama”, etc. Listen to the struggles being expressed and do your best to help the youth in front of you with what they are experiencing. The greatest thing you can do is to make sure the youth feels heard and understood. Help the best you can and if the situation is beyond your control take it to the next level to be addressed. Again, the consequences of relational aggression and bullying are young people taking their own lives as a solution. Let’s be better listeners and problem-solvers for our youth.
Kari Swanson is a Master’s level clinician with 25 years of working in the mental health field. She is the founder of CORE–Choosing Openness Regarding Experiences which is a non-profit organization with the mission to provide mental health awareness and suicide prevention education to Warren County.