Helping our girls to be kind and strong in a “mean girls” world

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We’ve all known “mean” girls.

When my daughter was 8-years old she had her first experience with “mean-girl behaviour”. Exasperated after two weeks of taunting and exclusion she came home, crying and asked, “why is there so little kindness in the world, mum?”

As a parent it can be excruciating watching our girls deal with this. And so often we feel powerless to help her. 

Unfortunately we now know that this behaviour is on the rise worldwide, in schoolyards, classrooms and online.

If we are to guide our girls successfully through this tumultuous space – as parents and educators – first we must see and understand what is going on. Not an easy task given that much of this occurs away from adult eyes.  

So what does “mean girl” behaviour actually look like? How does it play out in schoolyards and online?

Out to Harm

“Mean girl” behaviour, or relational aggression as it is referred to in psychology, is aggressive behaviour that is intended to harm others through deliberate manipulation of their social standing and relationships.

 According to bullying expert, Carl Pickhardt, relational aggression can be broken down into five types:

Teasing: the act of making fun of a difference in someone – to criticize their traits, diminish their social standing and set them apart socially.

Bullying: the act of verbally or physically intimidating, injuring, coercing, or dominating another person. E.g. stealing their things or making threats like, “if you do what I say, I’ll share this photo”. 

Exclusion: the act of refusing to let someone associate with others or join a group. E.g. not letting someone sit at your lunch table, excluding that one person from parties, distancing from an individual in class or not give them membership to a special group. Girls tend to use this more than boys.  

Rumouring: the act of using gossip to spread lies or secrets about another person that demeans his or social reputation. E.g. circulating stories (in person, over the phone or over the internet) or telling others something told in confidence. Again, rumouring is more prevalent for girls than boys.

Ganging up is the act of many using their greater numbers to torment another person.

Sometimes these occur separately but in the worst cases, are combined to be extremely potent and damaging.

What is most damaging about relational aggression is that fear is used to manipulate others, which can lead to our girls feeling like they have no way out. This includes the fear of being inferior (something is wrong with me), fear of isolation (I have no friends), fear of weakness (I can’t stand up for myself), fear of defamation (people will do something bad to me) and fear of persecution (everyone is against me).

Narcissism and the ‘Me’ Culture.

Alongside the rise in relational aggression research has also revealed some concerning and not unrelated trends in our pre-teen/teens. Compared with 30 years ago today’s youth are 40% lower in empathy and show 58% higher narcissistic tendencies. Moreover, entitlement, difficulty taking responsibility and criticism, feeling above the rules and cheating (many kids are reporting that they need to cheat in order to compete) are also on the rise.

So why do girls choose to engage in “mean girl” behaviour? And what is driving this trend?

It is easy to conclude that kids who engage in bullying are just mean people. Period. But for the large majority of girls who choose to be “mean”, it is more often a case of good kids doing something they know is mean to “survive a psychologically insecure time and an uncertain social world”. For many girls, without proper guidance, “mean girl” behaviour may be seen as a fast track to filling a void and gaining popularity, worth and value.

For all pre-teen girls it’s a confusing time and their developmental tasks are huge: they need to start leaving the comforts of childhood to explore their identity, independence, relationships and roles in a much more complex world. There is no playbook for this time and it can feel downright scary and hard.

Another major factor driving the decline in empathy and rise in narcissism is our girl’s exposure to technology. As parents we are aware that our pre-teen girls are growing up in a world where selfies, competition and self-differentiation are fast becoming the norm (whether we like it or not). Even if our daughter’s don’t have access to social media, they may already be feeling the pressure to compete with others, to “be special” and “unique” to fit in.

So often I hear girls verbalising this pressure with statement such as:

“Her life is so much more interesting than mine”.

“I wish I was as good as her”.

“She has more likes than me”

“I’m never going to be good enough”.

The problem with this kind of thinking – us against the world – is that it creates a very small sense of self. One that is fragile and constructed. It is HERE that our girls become most vulnerable to depression and anxiety and … yes, relational aggression.

So what can we do as parents and educators to help protect and prepare our girls?

As parents we can have a major influence over (a) how competent our girls are in dealing with aggressive, bullying behaviours and (b) how likely they are to engage in relational aggression themselves.

 A large body of research now shows that children who experience positive parenting and cultivate social and emotional skills at home are less likely to exhibit relational aggression.

Two social/emotional skills in particular appear to be protective against relational aggression: EMPATHY and KINDNESS.

While traditionally considered soft-skills and given little importance, a recent surge in research has revealed that both empathy and kindness are primary ingredients of bully-free schools, harmonious inclusive classrooms.

Girls who practice empathy and kindness exhibit:

✔ Less jealously and fear

✔ Better mood thanks to the release of oxytocin and serotonin

✔ Increased focus and learning as the pre-frontal cortex is online!

✔ Stronger relationships

✔ Improved optimism and motivation

And it makes sense. When our girls think of themselves as connected to others and can celebrate others AS WELL AS themselves – their sense of self expands. They feel more fulfilled, supported, motivated and whole.

So what steps can we start TODAY to start building empathy and kindness in our girls?

Stay close. According to a recent global survey conducted by the Dove Foundation the #1 thing that pre-teens and teens want is a better relationship with their parents. Despite common misconceptions, our girls need us present more than ever to talk to, confide in, guide them and set limits. When we carve out one-on-one time with our daughter on a regular basis we are forming a stronger foundation of trust and communication in our relationship for the teen years.

Teach her the Six Questions. Six simple questions can help guide us as to whether we should say what’s on our mind … or not!  We can ask ourselves, is what I am about to say: Kind? Inspiring? True? Helpful? Best coming from me? The right time? Think about your own communication too. Do you ever gossip at home? Is there a better ways as parents to convey things? Remember, she is always listening!

Help her cultivate reflection. Asking questions is such a rich way to get her thinking for herself – which is what we want her to do when we aren’t around! So ask her: what makes someone happy? What are things that fill us with joy? How does it feel when you do something for a friend? What kind of friends do you want? How do your friends show up for you?

Give her feedback. Ask significant people in her life – teachers, friends and family – to write a short note to her about her best qualities and times they have seen her display them. Collect them and give them to her!

Celebrate the people in your life: Talk with your daughter about who is in your TRIBE. Who are your best friends? What qualities make them amazing? Send messages to these people. Zoom old friends. Help her build a network and celebrate that.

Celebrate difference in the world. Open her mind to different perspectives and diversity in the world. Watch movies, read books and talk with your girls about the value that different people bring to the world. Imagine if we were all the same, how boring life would be!

Power statements. What can she say if confronted by “mean girl” behavior? Explore different statements and get her to practice one that she feels resonates with her. E.g. “Stop doing that. That’s not kind”, “Why?” “Imagine if someone did that to you/someone you cared for – how would you feel?”, “Stop. We need to talk”.

I believe that we have a unique opportunity right now in the pre-teen years to equip our girls with everything they need to thrive in their teens. And you, mama, are key to that! Together we can make a difference for the next generation of girls!

Dr. Fiona Ghiglione

Founder, Mothering Girls

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