Why We Need to Address Mean Girl Behavior Early and Often

New research confirms childhood bullying leads to poor mental health for teens.

Posted Jan 16, 2018

Pixaby/Pexels
Source: Pixaby/Pexels

The “mean girl” narrative is so ingrained in our culture that many even consider it a “rite of passage” of sorts when it comes to surviving girlhood. We see it in the media. We see it in literature. We see it in our daily lives. Girls learn that relational aggression is simply something that occurs throughout the course of girlhood. Some lucky girls manage to avoid it, but many fall victim to relational aggression at some point in their lives. 

One survey of 11,561 third to eighth grade students in rural and urban schools in Oregon revealed that 41 to 48 percent of girls and 31 to 42 percent of boys reported exposure to relational aggression in a thirty-day period. Four to 6 percent of girls and boys reported exposure once or more a week. 

Relational aggression comes in many forms and can include gossip, rumor spreading, public embarrassment, social exclusion, and alliance building. Given that many children now have access to SmartPhones, tablets, and other forms of technology, relational aggression also bleeds into cyberbullying. The lines are blurry, at best.

Relational aggression is linked with school absences, mental health issues, social isolation, somatic complaints, behavioral problems, academic struggles, and even eating disorders and substance abuse as kids grow. In fact, new research shows that severe bullying in childhood puts adolescents at a higher risk of mental health issues, including suicidal thoughts and behaviors, debilitating depressive symptoms, and/or anxiety. 

The Quebec Longitudinal Study of Child Development included 2,120 children born in 1997/98. 1,363 of those children reported peer victimization between the ages of 6 and 13. The children were followed until age 15. Results showed that the most severely victimized students had greater odds of reporting debilitating depressive/dysthymic symptoms, debilitating generalized anxiety symptoms, and suicidality at age 15.

What this study confirms is that we have to help children build prosocial skills and develop empathy and compassion for others early and often. We can’t afford to wait until middle school to tackle these difficult topics. 

In my new book, No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls, I help parents and educators navigate this murky territory, including understanding why this behavior is trickling down to younger students and how we can take a proactive approach to helping kids stand up to peer negativity and promote empathy and kindness among young children. 

Educate

All too often parents are conditioned to avoid difficult conversations with their kids. Many parents indicate that they hope their kids are unaware of things like relational aggression and want to preserve childhood. The truth is that young kids are encountering relational aggression and they are not equipped with the coping skills to confront it.

Define bullying, cyberbullying, and relational aggression for your kids. Give concrete examples and ask them if they’ve seen or heard anything like it. Try role plays to help your child understand the differences between teasing, arguing, and acts of bullying.

Teach “upstander” behavior

It can be very difficult to stand up to peers engaging in relational aggression, but it’s also very hard to take the advice kids are given over and over again, “walk away.” When children are victims of rumor spreading, social isolation, or public humiliation, it’s downright devastating. It’s essential to teach all kids the power of being upstanders.

I always tell kids that it only takes one person to help another person in need. While standing up to peers (in person or online) certainly isn’t easy, kids can practice trying one of these strategies:

  • Refute the rumor
  • Meet a negative with a positive
  • Say something kind to the victim
  • Stand next to the victim to provide support
  • Get help from an adult on behalf of the victim

Lecturing kids about bullying doesn’t do much to inspire change. Teaching them how to make a difference gives them tools to use when they encounter bullying. 

Create an empathic environment

Kids who hurt others are hurting. This can be difficult to remember when your child is on the receiving end of bullying. 

One thing schools and families can do to help children is to create empathic environments. In a time when winning and success are highly valued, we need to help kids understand that empathy and compassion are more important than trophies, test scores, and college acceptances. To do this, we need to show empathy and compassion for others, and for our children.

Start and end the days with an emotions check-in. Share your highs and lows, and ask your kids to do the same. Use empathic listening when your kids talk. Don’t listen to respond or fix; listen to understand. Read books steeped in empathy as a family or in the classroom. Talk about ways to help one another when others are unkind. 

The more we teach kids that they have the power to help and to heal, the more kids rise to the occasion and look out for one another. If we truly want to knock out bullying, we have to stop lecturing and start empowering. 

References

Childhood trajectories of peer victimization and prediction of mental health outcomes in midadolescence: a longitudinal population-based study Marie-Claude Geoffroy, Michel Boivin, Louise Arseneault, Johanne Renaud, Léa C. Perret, Gustavo Turecki, Gregory Michel, Julie Salla, Frank Vitaro, Mara Brendgen, Richard E. Tremblay, Sylvana M. Côté CMAJ Jan 2018, 190 (2) E37-E43; DOI: 10.1503/cmaj.170219

Vicki Nishioka, Ph.D. Education Northwest, Michael Coe, Ph.D. Cedar Lake Research Group, Art Burke, Ph.D. Education Northwest, Makota Hanita, Ph.D. Education Northwest, Je rey Sprague, Ph.D. University of Oregon, "Student-reported overt and relational aggression and victimization in grades 3–8," REL 2011–No. 114.

Hurley, Katie, "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls," TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Random House, New York, NY: 2018.