It is the stuff of many a teen movie. From Carrie to High School Musical, there’s always at least one girl who uses her status in the school’s social system to undermine another. But these evil schemers are not just the product of a screenwriter’s imagination. They do exist. Call them “Mean Girls.”
Dealing with teen mean girls
Meanness can be as benign as a random comment about one girl’s fashion choice or as malignant as a widespread lie about a sexual escapade. In either case, someone gets hurt at the expense of another’s rise in the social strata.
Psychologists refer to the gossip, snubbing, mockery and lies that make up the Mean Girl modus operandi as relational aggression. In middle school, this aggression was more overt and in your face: “You can’t sit with us at lunch.” In high school, says Dr. Laura Kastner, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington, “there’s still jealousy, envy, jockeying for position, but it’s just more subtle.”
Lily S., a junior at a Seattle-area public high school, agrees. “It’s upfront in middle school — direct effect. But in high school, in the long run, it’s probably worse. It can drag out a lot — rumors, talking behind people’s backs — without them even knowing; it can go on for months.”
Cyber-bullying and teens
Recent technological advances have made the job of the Mean Girl easier. Cyber-bullying is becoming an accepted fact of today’s adolescent reality, with rumors transmitting and morphing via blogs and websites such as Facebook. Kastner calls it “the telephone to the hundredth power.”
“It’s so fast; people can do things impulsively,” she says. “And because the aggression is anonymous, you can say things you’d never say to someone’s face.”
How can parents protect their daughters from this unsavory rite of passage? Schools try to eliminate it with what Lily calls “another one of those all-day assemblies about stuff like that.” But can we really expect to shield our daughters from the hurtful intentions of others, or prevent them from being the perpetrators of rumors and lies?
Dr. Kastner doesn’t accept the idea that all of this can be prevented. Vying for social power and the desire for inclusion are natural aspects of life. Exclusion and rejection are inevitably parts of this equation, so that’s why we can’t expect to totally eradicate it. “I’m not ready to demonize it and call for zero tolerance,” she says. “It makes a social setting like school an unsafe place for the messiness that is normal in children. Then your child, or some other child, is being made into a devil.”
Kastner urges parents to accept the fact that teenagers can be thoughtless and callous, and focus on helping them learn to learn cope with the repercussions of their words and actions. Developmental neuroscientist Dr. Abigail Baird, director of the Laboratory for Adolescent Studies in the Department of Psychology at Vassar College, considers it a matter of brain development. She conducted studies that showed that a teen’s frontal lobe is not developed enough to always allow her to make good decisions about behavior and problem solving. In girls, full maturity is not reached until the early twenties.
Helping your teen cope with bullying
Dr. Kastner, who has 30 years of experience working with adolescents, notes that teens rarely tell their parents about these issues unless an incident is extreme. The best strategy, then, is to arm your daughter with the information she needs to deal with this problem, in most cases, on her own. “Be humbled about the extent you can expect your child to deal with it,” says Kastner. “But support them in thinking twice before sending any negative messages about their friends.”
When your child is on the receiving end, Kastner says to advise her to confront the source face to face, not in a group. “You want to give her a protocol of empowerment. Teach her to chop off her friends when they try to keep a rumor alive. She can say something like, ‘I know you’re going to deny it. You might not have started it, but you’re keeping it going. I want you to stop.’ Assertiveness will be hard and won’t feel good, but it will work. It makes it un-fun to gossip.
“If the source can’t be tracked after a few days, then move on,” Kastner says. “Don’t engage in conversation. Stop the process of investigation, because that keeps the story alive.”
Dr. Baird advises girls who have been victims of Mean Girls to look for social support and coping strategies such as breathing techniques and yoga, believing that Mean Girls accelerate their behavior when attention is given to them.
Parents can also offer their daughters any number of recent books on the subject; it’s a good way to open a dialogue without appearing to pry. There are books for both the Mean Girl and her victims. In the worse-case scenario, a parent will have to intervene and talk to the school — especially if a rumor becomes a hydra. All you can do is pay attention to your child and offer help where you can. As Dr. Kastner notes, “There’s not a one-size-fits-all to this.”
Andrea Leigh Ptak is a freelance writer and graphic designer who lives with her husband and daughter in South Seattle.
Great books and websites for dealing with teen bullies
Mean Girls: 101 1/2 Creative Strategies and Activities for Reducing Relational Aggression by Kaye Randall and Allyson A. Bowen
Girl Wars: 12 Strategies That Will End Female Bullying by Cheryl Dellasega and Charisse Nixon
Odd Girl Out by Rachel Simmons
Mean Chicks, Cliques, and Dirty Tricks: A Real Girl’s Guide to Getting Through the Day with Smarts and Style by Erika V. Shearin Karres
Committee for Children — Cyber Bullying and Media Safety
“Cyber bullying — The Warning Signs: The Signs and Symptoms of Electronic Bullying” by Jace Shoemaker-Galloway