Helping Your Daughter Navigate Middle School Mean Girls
I met my best friend in middle school, and while our friendship 20+ years later is tighter than ever, we still reflect on those years when our friend group was like a soap opera: someone was always mad at someone, there was a lot of anxiety of when it would be “your turn,” and we were all constantly gossiping behind each others’ backs. Perspective is everything, and thankfully, we can laugh about it now, but unfortunately, this “mean girl” mentality is a very common rite of passage for many girls.
Now, with a daughter of my own, I’ve already seen some “mean girl” behavior as early as kindergarten. Yes, KINDERGARTEN. Outside of health and safety of course, having my daughter experience this type of conflict is top on my parental worries list, and statistics show that she’ll either be a victim of or witness to this type of behavior at some point during her childhood.
The “Mean Girl” Phenomenon
It may seem to happen overnight. One day, your child has a group of friends, and then a shift occurs, and the clique that was her world, suddenly turns against her. Oftentimes, there is a leader of the pack driving this shift. Even if the clique welcomes your child back at some point, there is always the fear that they could turn on her again. This rollercoaster of emotions is deeply rooted in relational aggression, a common practice in middle school surrounding social manipulation and exclusion.
Dr. Matt Hersh, a clinical psychologist with a focus on mindfulness explains, “Research shows that girls tend to resort more to relational or covert aggression in trying to feel better about themselves or to fit in. It’s therefore sometimes harder for others to detect that bullying is actually happening until the target of the relational aggression feels upset, emotionally deflated, or outright rejected.”
If you are the parent of a child who is the target, it may be hard to understand the “mean girl.” It’s important to remember that oftentimes, your child is being targeted due to jealousy – your daughter has something she doesn’t – and the “mean girl” is insecure despite her confident exterior. While this does not excuse her actions, it’s helpful to bring this context into the conversation with your daughter. Dr. Kathleen Trainor, a clinical psychologist who focuses on treating anxiety in young people and founder of the TRAINOR Center, explains, “Mean girls are insecure girls but they can hurt. Kids need to learn to recognize when a friend said something thoughtlessly versus a mean girl who really can’t be trusted.”
Below are some tips on what you as a parent can do during this unfortunate “mean girl” stage:
- Validate her feelings: As adults, we have a lot more life experience and oftentimes this friendship drama can seem petty and fleeting. If you went through this as a child, try and channel those feelings, and remember that to your daughter, this is EVERYTHING right now. Having your daughter see your compassion for the situation will open her up to sharing with you.
- Listen: I’m a fixer – I immediately want to swoop in and tell my children how to handle things. But this is very rarely the best tactic. Listening to your daughter is the most important thing you can do. Chances are, your daughter is putting on a brave face for much of the school day. Let her cry, pour open her heart (as much as it breaks yours) and be an outlet for her.
- Empower her: Victims of relational aggression often feel powerless. Giving your daughter the ability to control how she responds may help this situation. Power is everything to the “mean girl” too, so if she sees her words or actions aren’t having the desired effect, she may back off. Responding calmly, or ignoring completely, are signs that demonstrate self-confidence and sends a message that this type of behavior will not be tolerated.
Dr. Trainor also recommends for parents to “teach your child to stay away from the drama that often has the mean girl at the center. They need to learn how to be friendly but not friends with certain kids that cause trouble. And they need to solidify their friendships with the kids who also avoid drama and are trustworthy.” Learn more about helping your daughter resist peer pressure here.
- Escalate if you see the signs: We’ve all read the horror stories of victims of mean girls/bullies. It ranges from depression, body-image issues, self-harming, and even suicide. If you see any signs that your daughter is being severely impacted by her perpetrators, then seek help immediately. Talk to school officials if you haven’t already, and speak to a medical professional.
- Impact of Being a Bystander: Whether your daughter is being impacted by mean girls or not, it is important to reinforce that not speaking up to a bully’s behavior sends the message that you accept what you are seeing and hearing. Perpetrators crave attention – simply walking away and losing an audience can have an impact. (Just be sure to stress that this behavior should always be reported to an adult.)
According to the Family Resource Facilitation Program “when bystanders intervene, they can stop bulling within 10 seconds the majority of the time.” Saying “stop,” or not laughing along, can influence others to speak-up as well. I particularly like the message that Lisa McCrohan writes about in “Raising Girls Who Are Includers Instead of Mean Girls.”
Dr. Hersh explains the importance of having schools involved in creating a culture that applauds being a positive bystander (or “Upstander”). “When being an Upstander becomes a school-wide policy and is enforced in a collaborative and compassionate manner within individual classrooms, being an Upstander is rewarded and valued. Kids may then begin to feel less and less awkward or scared to stand up for a classmate and increasingly more proud and empowered. Victim blaming will also be diminished because there will be clear expectations for how each and every child should be treated.”
Preparing our girls for this type of behavior is important. The best we can do as parents is to empathize, empower, and seek help if needed. While this stage ended for me in middle school thankfully, I’m seeing more and more of this behavior extending through high school, and sometimes even into adulthood. Giving your daughter the tools and self-confidence to make it past this difficult time now may impact them a lot longer than their middle school experience.
Written by Phase2Parenting
PLEASE NOTE: The writers of this article are not medical professionals. The information in this column is not intended and should not be construed as providing medical or psychological advice, but rather to offer readers information and provide a perspective to better understand the lives of themselves and their children. Articles on this website may be opinion based. The articles are not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist, psychotherapist or other licensed medical professional. If you do have health or safety concerns, please get in touch with a healthcare professional.