The “Mean Girl” archetype is a cultural construct and a cliche. But, as any racist will happily tell you, some cliches exist for a reason. The truth is that young women often exclude each other and behave in emotionally abusive ways without offering any sign of remorse. Girl bullies are as real as boy bullies. They’re just different. And smart parents can more easily step in to stop their children from engaging in behavior that they will, a few years further down the line, find themselves apologizing for at a reunion.
“The phrase emotional bullying is something that has been around for a long time,” says parenting counselor Ann Pleshette Murphy, who serves as a board member for the parenting non-profit Zero to Three. “It is very much what girls around middle school begin to exhibit because it’s just so important at that age to belong, to not be excluded and to compare yourself to others.”
Attacking those important needs is exactly the modus operandi of the mean girl. It’s what’s known as relational aggression. That’s a form of aggression where a victim’s social status is the target. Studies have shown that relational aggression is linked to depression in its victims.
“The way that girls express this meanness is they leave other girls out,” Murphy explains. “They start rumors and spread gossip online. It used to just be writing something nasty on the girls room toilet door.”
What makes relational aggression so easy for adolescent girls is that their relationships tend to be fluid. But to thrive, it also requires a distinct lack empathy and compassion. At the end of the day, it’s easy to be mean when you fail to understand the deep pain you’re inflicting. Though there is some research to suggest that relational aggression is associated with mental illnesses like borderline personality disorder, it’s more likely that most mean girls simply don’t have the emotional capacity to understand the harm they cause.
“Kids are naturally altruistic,” she explains. “And many children are incredibly empathic long before we think they’re capable of thinking of anyone else.”
Parents can capitalize on this natural empathy by encouraging positive house rules around toddlerhood. Encouraging family activities that connect to giving and charity, for instance, accentuates the lessons parents should already be teaching about sharing, generosity and being a good friend. And enforcing zero tolerance policy on exclusionary language — “stupid” or “dumb” or “weirdo” — can set a good tone.
“You’re not trying to get kids not to feel these things,” Murphey notes. “Because they will and that’s part of what you have to accept as a parent. The worst thing you can do is belittle their feelings.” Still, she adds, there’s an important distinction to make between a kid speaking these feelings out loud and keeping them quiet or yelling them into a pillow.
At the same time, creating a healthy, loving relationship with a daughter helps them understand the importance of caring. It also gives them a safe emotional platform from which to operate, meaning there’s less likely to be a need to knock another girl down the social ladder in order to feel better about herself.