Mean girls have a specific look. Their eyes are cold, blank and ready to roll at any moment. Sarcasm runs across their smiles accentuated by posturing that’s half peacock; half pit bull.
What’s surprising is seeing the mean girl look on a 4-year-old holding a lollipop.
When most people think of mean girls they picture tweens or high school-aged girls like Lindsay Lohan’s character in the iconic movie Mean Girls. Yet, I’ve watched the bewildered look on my daughter’s face as she has encountered more than one mean girl in a variety of preschool settings.
The psychological term for mean girls is relational aggression, which is covert bullying using emotionally abusive tactics, psychological control, and manipulation. The added kicker is that not only you as an individual are attacked, but your peer relationships and social status are undermined. Relational aggression occurs more among girls than boys.
Today’s mean girls are like the past generation of passive-aggressive women on steroids and it can start as early as 4 years old.
According to a study out of Brigham Young University reported in the journal Early Education and Development, preschool-aged mean girls use tactics like: excluding a child from playing with the group; telling other kids not to play with that child; withdrawing affection and friendship if their demands are not met; and completely ignoring someone they’re mad at.
So what should parents and school systems do? The first thing is to recognize how early it’s happening and nip it in the bud. Four-year-olds are more socially sophisticated than a lot of people may think.
Mean girls derive most of their power by operating in shadows and secrecy. They’re good at feigning a layer of sticky sweet and then hitting someone covertly with their negative behaviors. Parents and school officials need to shine a light on these behaviors.
It’s not always easy to recognize these types of behaviors in our own daughters. But identifying negative behaviors and their causes early may stop the meanness from becoming an ingrained personality trait. Let girls know that they won’t be able to develop good, lasting friendships with the mean girl approach.
Encouraging empathy is an antidote to mean girl syndrome. Talk to them about the consequences of their actions on others and how others may be feeling.
Finally, it’s important to educate and prepare our daughters for what is most definitely awaiting them in the social world. It might seem harsh, but in reality, it’s more harsh not to.