Meanness in girls can start when they still are toddlers, a Brigham Young University study found. It found that girls as young as 3 or 4 will use manipulation and peer pressure to get what they want.
"It could range from leaving someone out to telling their friends not to play with someone to saying, 'I'm not going to invite you to my birthday party,'" said Craig Hart, study co-author and professor of marriage, family and human development at BYU. "Some kids are really adept at being mean and nasty."
They regularly exclude others and threaten to withdraw friendship when they don't get their way.
The "mean girls" are highly liked by some and strongly disliked by others. They are socially skilled and popular but can be manipulative and subversive if necessary. They are feared as well as respected.
The study is the first to link relational aggression (search) and social status in preschoolers. It appears in the current issue of the journal Early Education and Development. David Nelson and Clyde Robinson of BYU are the other authors.
Researchers have long known that adolescents, particularly girls, engage in this sort of behavior, called relational aggression, to maintain their social status.
"But it is striking that these aggressive strategies are already apparent ... in preschool," Nelson said. "Preschoolers appear to be more sophisticated in their knowledge of social behaviors than credit is typically given them."
Hart said other research has found that about 17 percent to 20 percent of preschool and school-age girls display such behavior. It also shows up in boys, but much less frequently.
"The typical mantra is that boys are more aggressive than girls, but in the last decade we've learned that girls can be just as aggressive as boys, just in different ways," he said.
The researchers asked 328 preschool children to rate their peers.
They asked which children were most likely to start fights, which were most popular and which were most physically aggressive_
The surveys found that even in preschool, a social hierarchy exists.
"You have popular kids, you have average kids, and you have kids (whom) others don't like to play with. Then there are some kids who just fly below the radar," Hart said.
Other research at BYU has shown that physically and relationally aggressive children are more likely to have parents who discipline with psychological control and manipulation, withdrawing love, avoiding eye contact and laying guilt trips on the kids.
"With relational aggression, we are early on in trying to tease apart these relationships," Hart said.
One thing researchers do know is that childhood slights can have lasting impacts.
Hart said the study may help teachers and parents key into relational aggression and the psychological and emotional trauma it can cause. Just as they do with physical aggression, adults need to monitor such behavior and help children recognize the harm it can cause.
"We've done studies showing that reasoning with children, not just one time but taking lots of opportunities to reason with them about how their behavior is affecting others, can help diminish it," Hart said.