{Homegrown Kids} Nipping “Mean Girls” Behavior in the Bud

Promo material for "Mean Girls"
Promo material for “Mean Girls”

Remember the movie Mean Girls?  For generations of women, it was both funny and far too familiar.

Alas, it’s only within the last couple of decades that we’ve come to fully understand the emotional impact of female  relational aggression. In recent years it’s been identified as “mean girls” behavior–after the comedic movie and the non-fiction book on which it was based. Yet boys engage in it, too. It’s a set of negative social skills that has been around for millenia–at least as long as little boys have taunted one another and stolen the lunch money of smaller kids.

Yes, relational aggression is also another word for bullying, although it tends to be more covert, nuanced even.
While it is gratifying to see this form of bullying recognized and begun to be called out, the reality is that many adults still don’t know how to recognize or address it in a constructive manner.

This means, of course, that children are still engaging in and suffering from the behaviors–and many victims carry the pain with them well into adulthood.

The methods of covert bullying are usually picked up by kids from peers and older kids who model it. The behaviors are not exclusive to schoolyard settings, and can occur in neighborhoods, church groups, and even homeschool playgroups–pretty much any place where children gather. Any child is a potential victim, but kids who are “different” in some discernible way are most apt to be singled out. This includes kids with disabilities, food allergies, and social skills challenges as well as gifted/2e children. (A 2006 Purdue study revealed that gifted kids experience a high rate of bullying in general.)

While researching the more general topic of bullying for a writing project, I ran across an insightful post by Dr. Michelle Borba on the topic of “mean girls” (lower case). Although written with girls in mind, much of the material translates well to understanding “mean boys,” too. She writes that:

…the goal of [relational aggression (RA)] is to damage the victim’s social standing or reputation by intentionally manipulating how others view her.

The methods of RA are always cold and calculated: deliberately isolating or excluding the victim, spreading vicious rumors or posting scandalous lies online, or creating situations to publicly humiliate her.

Make no mistake, relational aggression is every bit as damaging as physical abuse to a victim. So it should be no surprise that research also shows that RA is linked to low self-esteem, intense sadness, heightened anxiety, fear of other people, anger, eating disorders, social withdrawal and loneliness. It also lowers grades and academic performance and increases a girl’s risk for depression and in extreme cases, suicide. [emphasis mine]

Typical RA behavior may include name calling, making faces/eye rolling at the child who has been singled out for victimization, trying to get other children to “ignore” or ostracise another child for being “different,” and obvious social behaviors as well as more subtle, “behind-the-scenes” manipulation including gossip.

In addition to explaining the phenomena, Borba offers strategies to help parents nip RA in the bud. Note that children start using these tactics much earlier in grade school than psychologists once believed, which means her article is appropriate for parents of girls from preschool onward.

Parental understanding of RA is critical as many kids–especially small ones–may not realize the full impact of their behavior. However, many parents are in denial of RA as a means through which their child experiments with asserting social control. That denial (or general lack of awareness) can present problems for other adults in the parents’ social and familial circle who seek to address the negative behavior and correct it. Ultimately, a parent’s lack of willingness to address it can allow the child to think that RA is permissible. And the cycle begins again.

By educating ourselves and addressing it with our own kids (and sooner or later most kids engage in some of these behaviors), we may be able to ease the unnecessary intense suffering of girls and boys.

If you or your child(ren) have experienced or engaged in relational aggression, I’d love to hear how you dealt with it in the comments. I’m also curious about any books or other media that you may have used to explain the behavior to your kids. (Of course you may remain anonymous.)

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  1. ❤ this. I would like to think it's a cycle but I've met SO many sweet moms just to be introduced to their not so sweet daughters. Then I grow into a new world where having a child is a blessing only to be exposed to the worse kind of RA – mean moms. Make it stop!

    • Thanks for the note, Megan. I really appreciate it.

      I think one barrier we have is that parents fear that commenting on negative social skills is a judgement of their parenting. But yet no one thinks twice about pointing out if a kid does something physical. Although girls can be rough and boys can be emotionally manipulative, I think there is a double standard at work.

      The trouble in not working through that double standard is that the social and emotional pain can have lingering impacts–as Borba points out. Moreover, if you’re a parent trying to navigate through a social setting where relational aggression has taken hold, you end up feeling the odd person out–which creates sort of a vicious cycle.

      As for the “mean moms,” yes… the behavior goes right into adulthood and can manifest as “mean teachers” and “mean coaches,” etc.

      That’s not to say that other adults in a child’s life should all be Mary Poppins, though. There’s a difference between teaching a child to deal with different personalities and subjecting them to emotional cruelty.

      These are thorny, thorny social issues. But we need to start parsing through them in a non-academic way. Borba’s article offers a chance to do that, I think. Even watching “Mean Girls” with older kids offers a way, too.

  2. I haven’t seen this in the wild yet with my kids but I wonder if it is happening around them (to them? by them?) and I’m just clueless. Your post reminds me that this a topic I need to address, gently, with them now and as they grow so they are aware of what it is and how deeply people can be hurt by it.

    • It’s really tricky to address–and to ferret out. Because sometimes kids really *are* just “talking smack.” I think we have to tease out the context in which behaviors occur. I liked that Dr. Borba talked about “clues” that suggest older girls are having problems. And I liked to see someone talk at length about the “clues” evidenced in younger kids. (I know saying “I don’t like school” and having tummy aches are common, but beyond that I haven’t done enough research.)

  3. It’s certainly not new. I’m 40, and in grade school, I was a victim. I was shunned for several weeks as a 10-year-old. I can remember sitting alone in the playground thinking, “When I accept my Oscar, then they’ll be sorry.” It happened again to me as a 13-year-old.

    I survived this kind of social bullying because I had a great home life. My mom put an emphasis on enrichment activities like theatre classes and art classes that introduced me to kids I didn’t have to interact with at school.

    I will say, being the victim of this kind of behavior made me a good deal more empathetic. As I grew older, I would not stay quiet while others were bullied. And I think empathy is the lesson to teach children here. Trying to have kids place themselves in another person’s shoes can short-circuit the bullying impulse. And—at least in my experience—there’s usually a ringleader in this kind of behavior. It’s important that children know that just because a “popular” kid does it doesn’t mean it’s right.

    • I appreciate your personal disclosure and comment. I experienced it, too, and I still feel the effects. And I survived thanks to good parents and outside outlets–including theatre!

      I loved too what you said about asking kids to put themselves in the other person’s shoes. Very well said.

  4. Wonderful post. My soapbox right now is the content in these shows that kids are allowed to watch. Disney is the worst! The dialogue is mean spirited and the characters are often poking fun or teasing to a laugh track no doubt. And don’t even get me started on the amount of disrespect that is shown to their parents and this is again shown as being normal and funny even. I don’t allow my girls to watch any of it anymore but unfortunately it is all that is available and some parents think the content is OK because it is on the Disney channel or Nick or some other major network. We can do better and we must do better for all of our children!

      • Po Bronson’s book, Nuture Shock talks about how a lot of those shows were developed on the theory that it would help kids work through bad situations at school, but in the end it’s just helped children learn how to be mean more effectively and earlier.

  5. I should probably write a follow-up post for what I’m about to say, but I want to park it here because it’s been on my mind all day.

    First, I think that Dr. Borba makes a mistake in saying that RA is “cold and calculated.” Perhaps in older grades and adulthood that is true, but I think younger kids engage in it because they don’t know any better. And if they get away with it repeatedly, then it sticks with them and becomes part of their social skills set over time. THEN it becomes calculated.

    Second, I’ve been reading where “parental laxness” can allow covert aggressive behaviors in general to take root while more controlling parents can have children more prone to physical aggression. I don’t have anything else to say about that save for it’s an interesting thing to note.

    • Volunteering at my kids’ preschool coop, I can say that every year, without fail, a certain percentage of the 4 year old girls start experimenting with in and out groups. As a group, they spend a huge amount of time fighting over friends and trying to control who plays with whom, sometimes quite meanly. I think a lot of these behaviors start there, where they are developmentally appropriate. The question is how to let them learn what they need to learn socially while teaching them kindness and empathy and manners.

      (I don’t have insight into how this works among the boys, by the way. My own son is 3 and extremely shy. *shrug*)

  6. When my now-teenaged daughter was in a small private Christian school the bullying was so bad that she had her life threatened–a threat the principal didn’t see as worth investigating, but one which I took VERY seriously, given the source. That was when we began homeschooling, which is not perfect either, but gave my daughter a chance to rebuild her once-stellar confidence. Recently a couple of girls she knew from homeschooling started messaging her on FaceBook with accusations and obscenities. My daughter made the messages public and found her friends from all over the world rallied around her and assured her of their love. So online stuff can be very helpful, as well as negative (which we tend to hear more about). Because she did a missions trip last summer, she has friends from other countries as well as across the U.S. who have built upon the relationships started then, by using technology to Skype, text, and message one another. I’m so proud of my kid’s proactive response–that instead of wallowing in the negative, she sought the comfort of friends both in her physical realm and online. Where a few years ago she would cower, now her response is more like “Really? We’ll see if that’s so. I’ll ask my other friends.” Much more positive, and very empowering for her.

  7. I was alternately ostracized and bullied during my middle and high school years, but I was largely oblivious to those dynamics in elementary school — mostly because I was profoundly introverted and I always had my nose in a book. If it was possible to ignore a social situation, I always did. K-12 did teach me rather forcibly that it’s safer to be an outsider in most groups, which has its ups and downs. I’m astonished how at 42 I can still find myself tensing up at PTA events because I’m “not really supposed to be there,” but for the most part I manage because I just want to get things done. Oh, and because I live 3000 miles from where I grew up.

    I’d like to spare my daughter this nonsense, though, if I can. Last year a fellow kindergartner in another class decided that no one – including girls she’d known since preschool – was allowed to play with my daughter at school. K played alone for a week before she finally came home and cried about this to us. It went on for another week before she told us she didn’t want to go to school anymore. At that point, I discreetly went to her teacher and explained what was going on. Her teacher arranged for the other child’s teacher to bring her to K during recess and apologize to her in front of everyone. That didn’t solve every social issue K has had (and it shouldn’t, of course), but I think it made it clear to the 5 year olds that there were limits on how much power you were allowed to exert over your peers at school. I doubt this method would be effective later; children go underground with these things as they get older.

    For my daughter’s part, I haven’t caught her deliberately being mean to other children — which isn’t to say that she couldn’t be mean while I wasn’t looking! — but at 6 she’s definitely insensitive about how other children feel when she ignores them or brushes them off because she’s interested in other things. I’m not clear when children develop a consistent sense of empathy. We’re working on it.

  8. I’ve been on the receiving end of this for many many years, throughout school and also in the workplace. Even in mums groups. It’s horrible. My eldest child has also been on the receiving end of it too which absolutely breaks my heart as he is only 4 years of age. Kids (and their parents) can be utterly cruel sometimes but it is nice to have a name for that cruelty.
    Having been a victim of this for so long I know that as a child I too engaged in this nasty behaviour (you’ll do anything when you’re desperate for acceptance and friends 😦 and I am deeply sorry for it now) and I have to admit it frightens me deeply that my children may well suffer as I did for so many years.
    As for dealing with the issues, “turn the other cheek” or “just ignore them, they’re being silly” was the standard line but it reached a point where I ended up severely depressed and with my confidence destroyed during high school years. I changed schools and things improved but to this day it affects me (I’m 34 now) and I know I’m highly sensitive to that behaviour.
    My method of dealing with it has pretty much been to cut and run, not the best maybe but I don’t deal with confrontation well.
    Thanks for sharing this.

    • Well, I think we’re all prone to engaging in relational aggression at some point or another. I think it only becomes a problem if no one intervenes or if we never figure out what we are doing is cruel.

      I’d like to say that I have some magic words that I use when I encounter it as an adult, but I find that I have such incredibly low tolerance for adults who engage in it that I too just “cut and run,” too. My energy these days is too precious to expend on people who engage in emotional or mental cruelty.

      • Reading others’ comments makes me feel very lucky. I am very short (under 5 ft.) and was always the littlest kid in my class, but I was raised by a father who used to roughhouse with us and tell us “Punch ’em in the nose!” and a mother who said, “Kick them in the shins” if we were in physical danger, and also a general attitude that people should treat me as well as I treat them. I grew up with “the look” that seems to communicate to folks that they need to back off. Or I just pretend I didn’t pick up on them trying to bully me and respond as if they were pleasant, which disconcerts them. Most of the time. But I grew up with a lot of confidence. I wish I knew how my parents instilled that in me. It’s so hard to give our kids the kind of confidence and inner strength when they are young so that they can stand against this crap.

  9. Very important post, Pamela. I am always on the lookout for relational aggression against my son, who is in kindergarten and is 2e. So far, we’ve gotten some static from parents who misunderstood his capabilities, but his classmates have been friendly — I credit the teachers for going out of their way to promote acceptance.

    • It’s amazing what a good teacher can do–in the classroom or the home–to help ease the way for a 2e kiddo. It’s especially helpful for 2e kids who can be extra sensitive, too. Thanks for the note!

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