Relational aggression among young girls, often described as “mean girl” behavior, is on the rise. The behavior is even trickling down to the early elementary school (and sometimes even preschool) level. There are a number of factors that contribute to this increase, including social exclusion, alliance building, rumor spreading, and cyberbullying among girls.
Girls today face toxic levels of competition. Sports and extracurricular activities can be healthy outlets for girls to learn and grow together, but many of these activities are now focused on winning, getting to the top, and receiving high praise for success. In our success-driven culture we’ve conditioned girls to win at all costs, and this contributes to “mean girl” culture.
Girls also struggle with achievement pressure and perfectionism. Girls are constantly evaluated based on their achievements, and this causes them to seek approval instead of looking inward to build self-confidence and resilience.
We can’t ignore the role of technology and social media play when dissecting relational aggression among girls, either. The need to earn “likes” and showcase a sizzle reel online is a daily struggle that permeates the lives of our girls.
It’s important to take a look at the behaviors that “mean girls” might exhibit so that parents can help their girls reverse course and make positive choices. The good news is that girls are capable of change. Watch for these signs:
· Your daughter is overly controlling among peers and siblings
· She regularly forms clubs and excludes others
· Uses threats to control friends or siblings
· Says unkind things followed by “JK!” or “kidding!”
· Focused on popularity
· Changes BFFs frequently
· Lacks respect for adults
· Hyper-competitive with other girls
Self-esteem is an inside job, and many girls who exhibit “mean girl” behavior actually struggle with self-esteem. Parents can help bolster the self-esteem of their girls by playing a supportive, not controlling, role in their lives, carving out plenty of stress-free 1:1 time to connect, and listening to the needs and wants of their daughters. All too often parents enroll girls in sports and programs because they think these programs will translate to success down the road, but in order for girls to develop a healthy sense of self, they need to follow their own dreams and focus on their own interests.
Navigating social media is a struggle for many girls, and negative experiences on social media can affect the self-esteem of our girls. It’s important to focus on open and honest communication about the risks and benefits of social media use. Ask your daughter which apps she uses the most and what she likes about them. Ask her if she sees any positives or negatives and how she handles conflict on social media. It’s important to set healthy boundaries with our girls. We have to teach them to shut down social media use one hour before bed and charge their devices in another room. We also have to model having a healthy relationship with social media. When girls see their parents glued to screens, they internalize the message that constant digital connection is healthy.
I encourage parents and their daughters to come with a list of rules for healthy balance together. It might include things like, “I won’t post pictures of friends without their permission,” “I will meet negative behavior with kindness and stand up for others,” and “If I don’t know how to handle something, I will get help.”
One of the best things we can do to flip the narrative on the “mean girl” issue is to build assertiveness skills. Girls need to learn that they have voices, that their voices are stronger together, and that their thoughts and ideas matter. Many girls feel like they are stuck on a treadmill right now. The message they need to hear is that their parents trust them to make positive decisions, to carve out their own future, and to be accountable for relating to other girls in a positive way.
Katie Hurley, LCSW, is a child and adolescent psychotherapist, speaker, and the author of No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls and The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World. She maintains a private practice in El Segundo, CA, where she specializes in anxiety disorders and learning differences.