Every parent worries about his or her child not fitting in.
We can all remember the kid who was the odd one out or who never seemed to find her groove. Maybe you were that kid, or maybe you remember (with some guilt) being the one who kept others on the outside.
We don’t want our children to struggle socially. But we also don’t want to be the parent of a child who makes the adolescent social scene painful for others.
This phenomenon, commonly known as “mean girl” behavior, can turn into bullying if someone uses power to deliberately ridicule or threaten another — but it doesn’t always. That not-quite-bullying part is what we’re focusing on here, and both boys and girls can engage in this meanness, ostracize peers, and make school life harder than it needs to be. Perhaps a better name would be Mean Tween Syndrome.
This behavior isn’t consistently directed at any one person in the ritualized manner that bullying is. It’s the cliquish actions from a kid who knows her group and, often rudely, keeps others on the outside. The meanies don’t mind being vocal and taking opportunities to point out others’ shortcomings. They may also use social media to assert their authority.
Raising a child who engages in this behavior can be a big challenge. At home, your girl does well and is always planning the next sleepover with her friends. At the parent-teacher conference, you hear about how she’s excelling in class, follows the rules, and is well-liked by her peers.
Then with an "I’m sorry to say this" look, the teacher adds, "With some of the kids, a few that aren’t quite in the same place she is … she’s sometimes not the nicest. She excludes them from her social circle. And she isn’t welcoming when I have her work in groups with classmates who aren’t her friends. I’ve seen her get a little rude."
The teacher goes on to say, "She’s such a natural leader. I know she has a kind heart. I’m sure this phase will pass."
Most parents will walk away from this conversation thinking this phase needs to pass NOW, but they're mystified as to how to make it happen. Consider a two-pronged approach.
Work with teachers or group leaders (if adults are witnessing this behavior) to stay informed. If the behavior ratchets up or dies down, you need to know so that you can respond at home. At times it may be beneficial to impose some consequences for overtly mean tween behavior. You don’t want to look the other way; that inadvertently conveys that you approve.
However, don’t rely on punishment. That won’t fully solve the problem and could make matters worse. If your kid is now losing privileges at home, she has reason to seek revenge on others and knows to be subtle about it. Along the same lines, don’t force your kid to spend time with the peers he or she has treated rudely. If at some point the young people reach a friendly place on their own — wonderful. But pushing the issue could backfire on the kids who are already having a rough time.
To address the deeper issues, look at the big picture. You know your tween or teen doesn’t act like this all the time. Your child has empathy and kindness for his friends, so how can you build on that? Luckily there are lots of ways, and you can probably brainstorm a few of your own.
1.) Consider family movie night or a family book club. Pick a book or movie that has characters similar to the types of peers your child struggles with, or one that has a strong young person who goes on her own journey to be a better person. Book or movie, be sure to follow up with a real discussion about what the different characters are feeling. Everyone needs to share real thoughts and reactions.
2.) Remember inertia isn’t just for gravity. If your young person is with many of the same peers year after year, it may be especially difficult for them to make drastic changes in behavior. Making sure they have opportunities to interact with peers they don’t see all day, every day, at school could be helpful. Think: church youth group, martial arts dojo, a dance class, an art workshop. It is much easier to get comfortable with a new you when not surrounded by people with set expectations.
3.) Be patient. While you don’t want to let mean kid behavior linger unchecked, it has long been part of childhood. True behavior changes and deeper empathy for others won't happen overnight – but this can and does happen. Taking time to consciously encourage empathy in your young person will help avoid a long layover in the mean teen phase of life and keep the kids on track to be the kind people you know they are.
Jill Kaufmann, LMFT, is a family therapist in Bend, Oregon.
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