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How to Stop Girl Cruelty by Michele Borba
January 19, 2011

tween girl holds up a sign that says I'm brave by_stevendepolo
Photo Credit: stevendepolo


3 Steps to Stop the Cruelty and Raise Emotionally-Healthy, Caring, Strong Girls
Posted: August 11th, 2010 by Michele Borba


STEP 1: Get Educated About a Girl’s Kind of Mean (Relational Aggression)

The first step to turning this troubling trend around is awareness. Simply put: you must get educated about the Mean Girl Scene, what it looks like by age and stage, and the most common types of relational aggression. Relational aggression begins in earnest around third and fourth grade and is at its peak around those middle school years. The latest research shows that girls, as young as four, are bullying, threatening, and shunning out other girls from playgroups.

While younger girls use more overt mean exclusion tactics (“You can’t play,” or “I don’t want you here,” or even “Don’t let her into our game!”), older girls are more prone to use the ‘under the radar backstabbing approach’ to inflict pain. Methods are more covert such as spreading vicious rumors or scandalous gossip, lies and rumors, threatening to withdraw friendship, deliberately excluding another girl, manipulating affection of friendship, building alliances to exclude others, using betrayal or the “silent treatment” or other indirect means for revenge. And it can also involve using physical threats or extortion. Law enforcement warns that the Mean Girl scene is getting physical. We’re also seeing an increase in physical aggression amongst the older girl scene.

The pink gender is also more likely to send cruel rumors or crude comments via email, text, or IMing. And that’s exactly why cyber-bullying is the perfect delivery system for relational aggression: it’s anonymous, vicious, viral and effective in spreading hurt and damaging reputations. Sexting is the newest trend- sending photo images of girls in compromising situations electronically.

STEP 2: Know Signs of the “Mean Girl Scene”

The signs of relational aggression are often tougher for parents and teachers to spot than traditional bullying. One reason is because there are usually no physical scrapes, bruises, torn clothing, or lost items that are typical with physical or sexual-type bullying. And then there’s another reason: your daughter may not tell you that she is a victim of the mean girl set which is exactly why you must learn the warnings. Studies show that the older the girl, the less likely she will divulge her troubling experience with the mean social scene to an adult. And the top reason: Girls say silent suffering is often much easier than admitting to peer humiliation.

Many girls always admit that they did “tell” a parent, teacher or other caregiver and even pointedly ask for help, but they were only to have their “tale” dismissed as trivial, an exaggeration or just plain untrue.

“Why bother,” many a girl told me. “No one listened.”

“It’s just easier to stay quiet,” others said.

“It would be far worse if the girls found out I snitched on them. My life would be a living hell.”

As a result many girls never receive the emotional help they so desperately need. Don’t wait for your daughter to come to you. She may not. Instead, look for certain signs of RA in your daughter or in her friends. Here are a few behaviors that could be signs of RL. Of course, there could be a number of other reasons for such behaviors, but any one should be a parent red flag that something is wrong and warrant a closer look. Don’t overlook that relational aggression could be a possible cause.

* She is “picked on,” shunned, or excluded often. Every girl will be picked on or left out, but if you hear this complaint more than a few times take your daughter seriously. Bullying is a usually a repeated behavior that always has a negative intent. Once a girl becomes a target, she often is repeatedly targeted. Watch for a repeated pattern.
* She displays a pattern of wishy-washy, on-and-off again “friendships.” She seems to be friends with one girl one week and then “hates” her the next week. Or she’s “best friends” with one girl one day and then quickly becomes best friends with another girl another day.
* She speaks negatively about certain girls or a certain group of girls or clique. This could be the same group of girls that she once considered to be good friends. Tune in a bit closer. It could be a sign that relational aggression is happening in your child’s class or group.
* She has a sudden marked and uncharacteristic change in mood. The girl may seems sadder or even depressed or more irritable or angry and those changes seems to come on when she comes home from school, during the weekends (when she may be “uninvited”) or after a phone call, email or text-message.
* She suddenly withdraws. She starts pulling away from things she once enjoyed. She is lonely.
* She doesn’t speak of having any friends. No one calls, texts, emails or invites her over (not for one day or one weekend but as a general pattern). Remember, popularity is a myth. Girls don’t need lots of friends, but they do need one or two loyal buddies. The red flag here is if your daughter has no friends, or had friends and suddenly “lost” them.
* She suddenly avoids certain social situations. She doesn’t want to go to school or take part in the scouting, church group, soccer club, 4-H or other group activities she once enjoyed.
* She seems jittery, concerned or even afraid when an email, text, message, or phone call comes for her. She may quickly cover up the computer screen or refuse to answer a text or personal call. It may mean she is the victim of cyberbullying or fears that vicious electronic gossip or photos are being circulated about her.
* She has a sudden change in her eating or sleep habits. She suddenly complains of stomach or headaches or the inability to focus or concentrate. She can’t sleep or sleeps much longer. Her grades take a dip.
* She starts to speak about girls in a mean way. She adopts the “Mean Girl” attitude in which she excludes or shuns or gossips viciously. Is she becoming a Mean Girl to protect her standing or reputation, find relationships and a source of connection, or could she be the Queen Bee? Girls who are repeatedly targeted can switch when they have their “enough moment” and realize their only hope of social survival (that they know) is to “become one of them.”

Watch for downslide. If you think your daughter is really having a hard time, be available. Schedule a few weekends together. Take her to the gym with you. Take her to lunch. If things get really tough, consider seeking professional help.


The final step is for parents and educators to squelch this mean girl scene. Yes, cliques have always existed. And you’re right, girls have always been a bit catty (hmmm), but this goes way beyond cattiness: this is cold-blooded cruelty. Don’t expect overnight success, and do try different approaches. The goal is to raise strong, confident, and respectful young women. So open up the dialogue: Talk to your daughter. Get on board with other moms. Hold discussions at your school. Bring in speakers. Do what it takes, but start talking about the mean girl scene. Here are a few ideas other communities, teachers, counselors and parents are doing to end the girl wars and cease the cruelty.

1. Teach conflict solving. Teach your daughter how to solve problems and strategies for conflict resolution, but don’t expect overnight miracles. Learning any skill takes practice, so look for real life opportunities to practice the skill in then practice over and over. Forty-five percent of middle school students have conflicts one or more times each day and 80 percent said they see kids having arguments. A great resource is Girl Wars: 12 Strategies That Will End Female Bullying, by Cheryl Dellasega and Charisse Nixon.

2. Start with one ally. For a girl who is rejected and left out, one friend can be your child’s social entry card. Tell your daughter to not to aim at first for the whole group but start with just a one to one relationship with someone already there. And then be on the alert for girls who share the same interests as your daughter. (Older kids are more likely to choose friends based on similar interests or values).

3. Point her in a different direction. If your child rebuffed by one group, encourage her to try another that may be more appropriate. Sociological studies have revealed an amazing number of different cliques and groups on a typical high school campus including everything from athletes to geeks and arty-types.

4. Boost empathy. Appeal to your daughter’s caring side or nurture it if it lies dormant. Get on board with another mom and daughter and find a service project you can do together. The best way to cultivate heart is with real and caring experiences.

5. Don’t push too hard on being popular. Some parents overemphasize the need to be good looking, be in with the “in” group. Halt the comments about appearance and popularity. They do not help your daughter.

6. Help her manage frustrations. The mean girl scene can be a big stressor. And rejection can be very traumatic so offer your daughter healthy outlets and strategies for coping. Suggest she keep a journal, talk to mentor, express herself in her favorite creative way such as music, painting, or drawing. Many girls say that yoga is a great help in reducing their stress. Find her an outlet!

7. Start a book club with your daughter. A great idea came from the principal of Hilltop Academy in Washington who was concerned about the sixth grade “Mean Girl Scene.” She asked a couple of the school’s key Queen Bees if they would like to start a book club with a few other girls. “Sure!” the girl said. The principal chose Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, by Rachel J. Simmons (Love it! Love it!). Once the girls started to read and discuss the book (under the guidance of a fabulous principal), they recognized their own behavior and suddenly their mean streak stopped. Why not set up a book club with a few moms and daughters? My other favorites is Queen Bees & Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence, by Rosalind Wiseman. The Mother-Daughter Project is a fabulous resource to get you started.

8. Stay connected. I know those preteen and teen years can be tough on a parent’s ego, but a big mistake is stepping back from our daughter’s lives. Don’t! Find ways to stay connected and get into her life. Granted, it may take a bit of creativity, but think! If your daughter is leaning more towards her peers, why not get a few of her friend’s mothers on board? Start a mother-daughter yoga class or exercise as a group. Watch Friends or Mean Girl with her. Read and discuss the Twight series because she loves it. Or do what one mom told me she did: read Teen People so you can get into her zone.

9. Foster her strengths and passions. Find that spark in your daughter and help nurture her passions, capabilities, and healthy interests. Yoga, horseback riding, drawing, basketball, writing, cooking: what turns your daughter on? Tailor your parenting towards her natural nature so she has permission to be herself. Let her know you love her for who she really is-not for what you hope she will become. Doing so is one of the best ways to nurture strong identity and self-worth.

10. Find positive, female role models. Let’s offer our daughters female role models who feel comfortable in their own skin (and don’t need to rely on Botox, breast implants, dieting, and designer labels to feel attractive). What about J.R. Rowling, Michelle Wei, Anne Hathaway, Great Aunt Harriet or even the neighbor lady next door? Expose your daughter to authentic, confident women, and then tell her why you admire them. Our girls need strong, resourceful female examples to emulate. Enough of Paris, Lindsay and Britney!

11. Be the example you want your daughter to copy. Ask yourself one question each night: “If my daughter had only my behavior to watch today what would she have caught?” Was it: Independence or dependence? Confidence or insecurity? Respect or cattiness? Be mindful of your influence. You do matter. Also watch how you interact with your girlfriends. Listen to how you talk about those celebrities. Model what you want your daughter to become.

12. Be clear that you expect your daughter to be kind. Don’t let your child buckle into the cruel mentality of the other girls. Do Not! Talk to her about why those girls act they way they do. Tell her that someone a “Cool to be Cruel” craze has caught on. But there are no excuses: you expect her to be respectful and find others who share those values. And there are gloriously wonderful, kind-hearted respectful girls. Let’s not overlook those girls!

As much as we’d like to just will this problem away, the girl aggression problem is alive and well. The sad truth is the problem is only getting worse and is starting at younger ages. It’s time we take this issue seriously. Get educated. Talk to other parents. Talk to your daughter. Pass on this blog. Let’s get together.


Dr. Michele Borba, Parenting Expert

For more parenting advice follow me on twitter at Michele Borba or on my daily blog, Dr. Michele Borba’s Reality Check. My upcoming TODAY show segments or media appearances are listed on my homepage, Michele Borba. For specific parenting advice refer to my latest book, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries. San Francisco: Jossey Bass Publishers, 2010.

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