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Is My Tween a "Mean Girl?"

Strategies for supporting your mean tween.

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Maybe a friend, teacher, or coach is kind enough to clue you in. Perhaps you’ve had a devastating "aha" moment of your own by putting together pieces of glimpses of your tween’s behavior in the outside world. The blow can certainly be devastating. When your realization takes hold you may even experience your own embarrassment, shame, guilt, even horror. When did you notice your tween beginning to show mean behavior? It’s one thing to be an empowered young lady, it's quite another to sit on the throne as a queen bee. Regardless of how you’ve reached this conclusion — you know one thing for sure — this behavior has to be addressed, pronto!

A Developmental Understanding

As always, it helps to glean understanding through a developmental lens. Females and males can negotiate the world very differently. Females may emphasize interpersonal connections; intimate relationships are paramount. Females sometimes judge other females on their ability to successfully achieve this. True power is realized when they not only have a handle on their relationships but can control them. Such is the goal of mean girls, especially the "queen bee" that rules them. Perhaps it all sounds a bit too maniacal and unfortunately, at times, it can be.

During the awkward tween years, young minds begin to grow. The ability to think abstractly translates into an acknowledgment that a bigger world exists out there. Development at this stage can be quite uneven — intra and inter-individual differences abound. More socially savvy kids quickly realize that a social hierarchy exists; mean girls strive to master this. They use relational aggression as their primary weapon.

Defining Relational Aggression

Relational aggression is a specific non-physical brand of aggression. It is most often associated with “mean girl” behavior. The perpetrator “attacks” their victim by ruining their relationships, often with the aim of destroying their social status. Queen bees use this approach to keep their minions in line, buzzing around the hive. Queen bees rely on emotional abuse and psychological control to maintain their own social status. To be clear, however, this type of aggression is not only a tool used by queen bees. Get a gaggle of tween girls together and quite often there can be drama because, during this age, awkward insecurities abound.

Self-esteem is often vulnerable as the age of outside awareness begins to peak. Individuals engaging in relational aggression have a talent for stirring the pot. They know how to subtly slither into situations and cause chaos and doubt. A poke here, a nudge there, figuratively speaking, of course, they hone in on the insecurities of others and capitalize on any opportunity to devalue and destroy the weakest among them. It all sounds pretty selfish and diabolical, and well, it can be. Because egocentrism rules during this stage of development, tweens don’t typically use perspective-taking skills. They don't always have the ability to see things from the point of view of others the “me me me” urge just outweighs their inclination to use it. Relationally aggressive girls see it as a sink or swim world and they will use any means necessary to stay socially afloat.

Don’t Believe the Movie Hype

Hollywood would have you believe "mean girls" are bad to the bone. This is probably why accepting that your tween is behaving as a "mean girl" is so perplexing. You know your daughter isn’t one dimensional. In fact, before you learned that she was a mean girl you may have described her as consistently compassionate, kind, and caring. And well, she may be, just not with her peers. Socially aware tweens demonstrate a different level of insight. Many tweens are acutely committed to securing a place at the top of the hierarchy. This leads some girls to climb the social ladder no matter what the cost. Mean girls will do this without any mind to who they have to step on to get there. They see it as survival of the fittest. This can lead to actions and words inconsistent with their positive underlying nature. These same girls are often ruthlessly loyal to their friends and vigorously respect those whom they perceive as above them in the social food chain.

Responding to Your Tween’s Mean

Once you’ve verified that you have a "mean girl" in your midst, you need to approach the issue carefully. Your goal is a calm, caring conversation; you do not want to evoke an attitude and a shutdown. Bear in mind that because tween self-esteem is often vulnerable, cautious comments may still be perceived as criticism. Be direct and clear about the concerns. Offer your tween specific examples of concerning behaviors or conversation content. Appeal to her empathy by asking her to use perspective-taking. For example, ask her how she would feel if she were a mean girl’s target, or ask her what advice she would give a sister or friend confronted by a mean girl.

In addition to directly communicating with your tween about this issue, it is important to remember that kids consistently take cues from their parents on how to interact. There is always an opportunity to offer teaching moments. Self-awareness regarding your own interactions with others is the key to communicating the interpersonal qualities you want your tween to value. When you model caring and kindness you are teaching your tweens how to develop strong interpersonal skills. When you reinforce your tween’s positive interactions, you encourage reenactment.

Perhaps the good news is that the tween years are short-lived. As tweens enter their early teens they seem to mature at a breakneck pace. This is especially true for girls and it's easier to address when they are younger. As girls move from tweens to early adolescents and then late adolescents they tend to quickly grow socially mature. With that maturity comes an insight, confidence, and self-esteem. Putting it succinctly, they learn that mean girls no longer command center stage. Those that tend to be well-liked as they grow older are intelligent, kind, and fun to be around. Being mean no longer has a particularly high social payoff.

Discovering your daughter is behaving in ways that are mean is a difficult revelation. An open and honest approach can clearly communicate your concerns. Modeling the core values to which your family subscribes including, caring, kindness and, respect can help flip the script on your tween’s approach to social stability. Reinforcing positive interactions further works toward extinguishing this approach to peers. In the end, when you address the mean with your tween, you can help her to feel better about herself and those around her.

More from Jennifer Powell-Lunder Psy.D.
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