Is your child facing ‘mean girl’ behaviour?
Emotional bullying is common among girls and today, starts at earlier age than before. How could you enable and empower your girl to face mean girl behaviour? Read on to find out.
By Dr Meghna Singhal • 18 min read
I remember walking to the morning assembly every day with my heart thumping. A group of girls would be staring, sniggering, and whispering looking at me.
I was in seventh grade and a class topper. We had just been shifted to the bigger branch of my school and within two months, I was begging my parents to change my school because the girls here were so mean.
And now in retrospect, I realise, wow those girls were cruel! They spread rumours about me to not only other students but to teachers too- those who did care to listen anyway. And made prank calls at my house on our landline number. And would laugh at me every time I was up on the stage for an elocution or recitation event.
This one time, we were writing our History exam and one of those girls requested me for help with an answer. When I leaned in to look at which question she needed help with, she raised her hand and called on the teacher. “Ma’am, she’s trying to copy from my answer sheet,” she claimed. My heart sank. “No ma’am” was all I could feebly say. Tears welled up in my eyes and dropped on my answer sheet, making tiny smudges. I still remember that look of triumph on her face.
I know I eventually hung out with another group. For the next four years I had some good experiences at this school. I still have a friend from there who is one of my closest friends.
But those girls continued to bully. Yes, bullying is what I call it now that, as an adult and a mental health professional, I think back about their behaviour. They were the kind who would talk nicely to you one time and you’d feel like “oh good! We’re friends” and the next minute talk behind your back or put you down.
It happens to most of us, where other girls have been mean to us.
It happened to me in seventh grade. But today it can happen at any age. Just a few decades back, one had to worry about mean girl behaviour primarily in middle and high school, while pre- and primary-schoolers spent hours at play and enjoyed friendships without much drama. But in this past paced world where young girls are exposed to negative behaviours through media, even kindergarteners are getting caught up in social hierarchies!
Relational aggression, or emotional bullying, however is mostly insidious. Since the ostracising, rumour spreading, name-calling, and backbiting can be unnoticeable to an outsider, mean girl behaviour can often be overlooked by parents and teachers. Today, social media is another avenue through which much psychological harm is inflicted in the form of cyberbullying, attacking others online using gossip, hurtful comments, and even slut-shaming.
Why being mean is more common to girls (than boys)?
Traditionally, boys are known to perpetrate physical bullying whereas emotional bullying is commonly perpetrated by girls. Also, even in instances where boys and girls equally perpetrate relational aggression, girls report feeling more victimised. This may be because girls are more sensitive to fairness, reciprocity, and importance of social relationships.
So, what contributes to mean behaviour, both offline and online? Why do some girls choose to be excluders? Let’s unpack mean girl behaviour.
Envy, attention, and competition. Girls engage in relational aggression because it helps them establish and maintain social status within the school or social group. Mean girl behaviour emerges out of envy or need for attention or fear of competition. Being envious of others’ appearance, grades, or popularity, a girl might choose to make fun of some others in an attempt to feel secure about herself. Thus, mean behaviour sometimes emerges out of a girl’s low self-esteem or feelings of shame or self-loathing. She might share secrets, tell juicy stories, or share negative (often false) information about others to create excitement and bring attention to herself. She might also target someone to make her seem less desirable to others.
Clique membership and peer pressure. Mean behaviour might also arise if a girl has issues with control and power. She wants to be a leader and determine who gets into her clique and who doesn’t. Within these cliques, there are usually rules to be a part of the group, based on looks, hairstyle, or clothing- usually decided by the leader. The other group members, or followers, will do anything to remain part of the group including bullying other girls. These followers may compromise their own values and be mean to other girls because of the peer pressure to fit in and gain acceptance within their clique.
Role-modelling. It is important to remember that mean behaviour is largely learned. Whether it’s observing other women (mother, older sisters or cousins, or teachers) or being negatively influenced by media (TV shows or movies), the tendency of some girls to exclude others or harm others’ reputation comes from what’s being modelled in front of them. A 2019 American study revealed that among adolescent girls, exposure to relational aggression on television was associated with higher levels of relational aggression in texting one year later.
Revenge. When a girl has been bullied herself, she may be motivated to seek revenge and retaliate for the pain she has experienced. Such girls, referred to as bully-victims, feel justified in their actions and may target either another perpetrator directly or a weaker, more vulnerable girl.
Misuse of empathy. Do girls who perpetrate mean behaviour lack empathy? Not really. In fact, girls who are mean are notorious for their ability to recognise weaknesses and shame others. They do have a capacity to empathise, writes Mary Lamia, author of Understanding Myself: A Kid’s Guide to Intense Emotions and Strong Feelings. “However, they destructively use their empathy to manipulate, control, exploit, or to cause pain. And they are able to withhold their compassion for the distress they cause others to feel.”
However, these girls need our help. As a psychotherapist, I know when someone hurts others, it’s because they are hurting. And I have counselled both the perpetrator and the victim-survivor.
Being a mother myself, I know, too, how when our children have similar experiences, we remember our own moments of hurt, betrayal, and rejection. And we may respond from the vantage of those experiences. Your memories of your girlhood pain may leave you emotionally triggered, but that can make it hard for you to be a helpful resource to your girl.
ParentCircle interacted with Katie Hurley, a child and adolescent psychotherapist, parenting expert, and award-winning author of No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls. This is what she suggests about how parents can speak to their girls early:
“Parents should talk about relational aggression early and often. It's important to understand the difference between a bad day or unkind choices and chronic bullying. While chronic bullying can result in trauma and mental health and even substance abuse issues in adolescence, many interactions labelled "bullying" can be attributed to poor social skills and inadequate coping skills. Children need help learning how to work through the ups and downs of social relationships. Step one is do a little research to become better versed in the definition of bullying and what relational aggression actually means. Your child looks to you for honest answers, so finding statistics and descriptions helps.
It's always important to consider age. When talking to preschool and early elementary age girls, you want to give short and specific answers. Try to avoid labels like "mean" or "bad." The truth is that young children make tons of social errors as they grow - that's part of growing up. Labelling other kids limits your own child, as well. It's also a good idea to focus on empathy and compassion. Instead of "she didn't play with you so she's not your friend," for example, try, "I wonder what might have been happening that she decided to play alone today?" When we put empathy first, we learn to connect with other children and consider the big picture.
With older girls and tweens, talk about expectations and specific behaviours. This is a crucial steps when it comes to managing social media. Our girls need guidance and support as they wade through murky territory.”
Let us look at how you can enable and empower your girl to face mean girl behaviour, without swooping in and fixing everything for her.
Before she faces mean girl behaviour:
• Talk about friendships. The best way to understand, connect, and build mutual respect with your girl is to have open conversations on various topics from friendships and relationships to negative peer situations. Using everyday situations to talk about what friendships entail from an early age can go a long way in instilling an anti-mean girl mindset.
• Help her identify cliques. Discuss with your girl the differences between a clique and a friends group. For example, friends groups do not leave some girls out intentionally, are supportive of differences, and do not dictate that girls conform to certain standards to be part of the group. Girls in cliques, on the other hand, use power to hurt others and are focused on popularity and social status. Help your daughter identify cliques but avoid pushing your girl toward what you feel may be the ‘right’ group or set of friends for her. Teach her how to identify frenemies (toxic or fake friends). Stress to her the importance of being herself. Discuss that real friends will appreciate her for who she is and not coerce her to be different.
• Get to know her friends. Being cued in to your girl’s social life is a good idea. It will tell you a lot about the kind of friendships she has, and how she behaves with people of different personalities. Invite your girl’s friends home and have friendly conversations to get to know them better. Healthy friendships are a protective factor when it comes to relational aggression. Help your girl develop and nurture strong friendships, and be a part of many friends’ groups, not just one.
• Discuss the dangers of rumour-spreading and gossip. Teach your girl that being judgmental, name-calling, making hurtful jokes, or spreading rumours are unhealthy and constitute bullying. Talk about the negative consequences of these. Teach her to think twice before hitting send on a text message, forward, or social media post. Educate her about the dangers of cyberbullying. Also talk about the importance of keeping secrets (unless safety is an issue).
• Model kind behaviour. Your behaviour as a mother is important for your girl learning about interactions- such as handling relatives that you don’t like (“Should we invite them to the party?”) or teachers or other parents in a committee or meeting. Do you exclude people, dominate them, or gossip about them? Model kindness and empathy in your everyday interactions- being polite to the grocery cashier, visiting a sick friend, or supporting your household help.
• Foster healthy self-esteem. Show your girl unconditional love and acknowledge her good choices. Don’t jump in and take over tasks (such as chores or homework) that she finds difficult. When you allow her to work through something without your help, you confirm your belief in her capabilities. If she has healthy self-esteem she will not feel threatened by others, and will be able to celebrate others’ accomplishments without being overcome by envy.
• Monitor her online activity. As your girl grows up and gets her own mobile/laptop, ensure that you teach her to navigate the Internet to ensure her safety and that of others. Encourage her to always keep her passwords a secret, even from her friends; to have stringent privacy settings; to be kind to others online; and not to respond to or forward gossipy posts. It’s also a good idea to have discussions with your girl to enable her to think about what she posts online and who sees what she posts. Talk to her about cyberbullying and its consequences.
• Talk about being an includer. Girls often face immense peer pressure to support mean girl behaviour. Encourage your daughter to support the girl(s) being targeted, rather than being a silent bystander. This might mean walking with them to class, sitting with them at lunch, or inviting them to social activities. This might also mean standing up for them when they are being targeted online and refusing to gossip or spread rumours about them. Recommends Hurley, “It's essential that parents teach their girls to act as upstanders in their communities. It's very difficult to stand up to a mean girl, but it is easier to reach out to a target and offer help. Make eye contact, offer friendship, move away, and get adult help. If all girls learn to look out for one another and life each other up, relational aggression will decrease.”
After she faces mean girl behaviour:
• Talk about your girl’s feelings. Discuss the way it has made your daughter feel and react. This will help her label her own emotions and assist with building self-awareness. Talking about it will also help her process the emotion.
• Practice staying confident. Mean behaviour is unlikely to be repeated in the face of calm, confident opposition. Encourage your girl to ignore the mean behaviour or if its too in-your-face, to remain confident, avoiding looking nervous or defeated. Remembering that those who behave in a mean manner often suffer from low self-esteem may help your girl avoid personalising the bullying.
• Teach conflict resolution skills. Learning to collaborate, anticipating consequences, focusing on the present instead of the past, and communicating clearly are some conflict resolution skills that girls can be taught using games or simple discussions. Being respectful of differing viewpoints and using humour are two other powerful techniques that help resolve conflicts. Teach your girl to stand up for herself and be assertive, without being aggressive.
• Help your girl take charge of her life. Teach your girl that we can’t control others’ actions, but we can stay true to ourselves. Encourage your girl to think about ways to feel her best and strongest. She could consider taking up exercising, playing a sport, doing yoga, or learning martial arts. Another way to regain her shaken confidence could be to hone her skills in an activity like art, music, baking, writing, or anything that makes her feel good. Encourage her to join a club in her school as a way of feeling good about herself and being further able to ignore the girls bullying her.
In a Nutshell
- The ‘mean girl’ culture is starting even earlier today, owing to a host of reasons: earlier physical maturity, declining empathy, and higher pressure to achieve
- Mean behaviour is largely learned. It can be fuelled be competition, peer pressure, or having issues with power and control
- You can ensure your child doesn’t turn into a ‘mean girl’ by talking to her about friendships, encouraging her to be part of diverse circle of friends, and fostering healthy self-esteem, among other things
What you can do right away
- Teach your girl to be an ‘includer’ by modelling kindness and empathy in your everyday interactions
- Explain how to consider a friend’s perspective in a disagreement to teach perspective-taking
- Monitor your child’s online activity and talk to her about dangers of cyberbullying
About the author:
Written by Meghna Singhal, PhD on 17 October 2019.
Dr. Singhal is a clinical psychologist with a doctorate degree from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia). She is Head of the Content Solutions Zone at ParentCircle.
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