Melanie* says that her 12-year-old daughter is being picked on by other girls. “They’re so mean. I try to tell her that they’re bad friends, and that she should look for nicer ones. But that that just makes her angry at me. She says I don’t understand. I wish I knew how to help her get through this.” She’s silent for a beat, and then she continues, “I do know what it’s like, of course. I had mean friends when I was her age. It’s so painful. You can’t give them up, but all they do is make you feel bad about yourself. I wish she’d get as mad at them as she does at me!” She recalls a time one of her so-called friends spread a rumor that Melanie had been flirting with another girl’s boyfriend. “It wasn’t true. I didn’t know the boy and was too shy to flirt. But they stopped speaking to me. It was awful. And I didn’t find out what they were mad about for a long time, so I couldn’t even defend myself, although I doubt that would have worked, anyway.”
I hear stories like this so often that I sometimes wonder if it wouldn’t be useful to put girls into isolation for a few years, say between the ages of eleven and fifteen, so that they could develop without the pain of these toxic interactions with their so-called friends. In case anyone thinks this really is a good idea, let me hasten to say that it would be even more destructive than dealing with bad or toxic friends. In fact, the truth is that these experiences, painful as they are, do serve a function.
Much as we would like to think that an experience of being repeatedly hurt by a bad friend would make a girl more empathic to others in similar situations, as Tina Fey’s movie Mean Girls beautifully illustrates, it can have exactly the opposite impact. The girl who has been hurt by her mean friends might be equally mean to someone else, her mother, for example, or a sibling or, as in the movie, to her less popular but nicer buddies.
So if learning to be kind to others is not what girls learn from these hurtful relationships, what purpose do they serve?
Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and the New Realities of Girl World (which was the basis for the movie Mean Girls), writes that being ostracized by toxic friends can feel to a developing girl as though she has been cast out of the only world that she wants to belong to. These toxic friends are often viewed as popular or important, and being friends with them gives status to a girl who feels insignificant, unattractive, and insecure. Psychologists Frank Lachmann and Robert Stolorow call this kind of borrowing of status “gilt by association” (so, for example, a youngster hopes that some of the shine that is attached to their friends rubs off on them).
But there is even more to this picture. Developing girls struggle with a mixture of complicated and often disturbing emotions. Youngsters who have always been good and sweet girls suddenly turn angry and defiant. Often, although not always, this negativity is directed particularly towards their mothers, as authors Roni Cohen-Sandler and Michelle Cove have humorously and cleverly illustrated in their book I'm Not Mad, I Just Hate You!: A New Understanding of Mother-Daughter Conflict. Struggling to deal with the feelings that are stirred up in these painful relationships with mean girls can, if carefully managed, help these developing young women find healthy ways to cope with some of these complicated and painful internal rumblings.
So what can parents do to help their daughters manage these toxic friendships?
- Recognize that being attached to toxic friends does not doom your child to a terrible future. Try to understand why your child keeps hanging out with these other kids. Lee Hirsch, who made the documentary Bully, makes the point that sometimes the bullies are the only friends a youngster can make. This is not, in my experience, always true of girls who are friends with mean girls. But these other girls represent something important, something that a growing child may feel she cannot get in any other way.
- Self-doubt and insecurity is often part of the developmental process. Look for realistic ways to promote your child’s self-esteem without being either insincere or over-the-top with your comments. Find genuine positive characteristics you can praise, and then simply comment on one or the other of these traits or behaviors once or twice a day.
- It is equally important not to put down or aggressively criticize these highly admired youngsters. Doing so may not only alienate your daughter, but it may also send some of the very feelings she’s trying to manage under cover: it may make her feel even more uncomfortable about some of the anger and hostility she is struggling with in herself.
- Wiseman encourages parents to demand that their children act with respect and dignity towards others. This expectation can be applied not only to mean girls, but to daughters who are trying to be friends with them.
- Understanding that the other girls have feelings, and especially that they have insecurities, can be eye-opening and empowering for many youngsters. In his review of Bully, The New York Times film critic A.O. Scott praises Hirsch for not scapegoating the mean kids. He writes, that the documentary “forces you to confront not the cruelty of specific children — who have their own problems, and their good sides as well — but rather the extent to which that cruelty is embedded in our schools and therefore in our society as a whole.”
When Melanie* put some of these ideas into action with her daughter, she said that the situation did not improve dramatically, but that something subtle – and, she thought, very important, happened. “She’s still getting her feelings hurt by those girls, and she’s still getting angry with me,” she said. But there was an interesting difference. “I didn’t take her words so personally,” Melanie said. “I kept telling myself that she was trying to sort out all of those nasty emotions, but that they weren’t all there was to her. And I started thinking that I have the same struggle, even today. I don’t like to feel angry or mean either. And maybe we can both recognize that being mean isn’t all there is to either one of us. But neither is being nice -- we're both good people with lots of different feelings.”
*names and identifying information have been changed to protect privacy and confidentiality