A lot of effort has gone into shining a light on the troublesome topic of mean girls. But just when I begin to feel hopeful that the tween years might begin to look less treacherous, I hear a story from friends or see a story on the news, and then I’m discouraged all over again. How many times have we talked about how awful girls can be to one another, how to make sure you don’t raise a mean girl, and how to handle those your daughter deals with. As with other social issues, it can feel overwhelming to take on the entire problem. Focusing on one child and one parent at a time, I still hold out hope that we can make the world a better place for our daughters. The topic of mean girls can be complex, but I believe there’s really four big things we need to concentrate on.
Empathy. I like to come at this from a brain perspective, I think it helps us to understand why girls’ can act the way that they do. It’s not enough to say “be kind,” it’s much more complicated than that. There are two types of empathy – affective empathy and cognitive empathy. Affective empathy is the ability to recognize and respond to the feelings of others, and even young girls tend to have this in decent supply. This explains why if someone is crying or visibly upset, girls are likely to quickly become aware and respond. This part of empathy isn’t really the problem. Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand the perspective of others, and this is not a skill in abundant supply at this age. So cognitive empathy is where we need to focus.
Imagine this scenario: Your tween daughter goes to the neighborhood pool with friends, and other girls from her class are there. As they all prepare to get in the water, Sarah looks at Ashley and says loudly “oh my gosh, that swimsuit looks like something my little sister would pick out, it’s SO babyish!” Ashley fidgets and forces a laugh, and mumbles something about how she hates it, too and is totally going to the mall the next week to get a new one. The girls around them either snicker and giggle or become uncomfortable but say nothing. Later, you ask your daughter if she thinks Ashley is okay after that incident. She says “yeah, I don’t think it bothered her, she was laughing!”
Had this happened, you would probably wonder how your daughter could possibly think Ashley was ok. Doesn’t she see that if it were her in the same situation she would be embarrassed and upset? I’m sure you can think of times where you’ve seen a disconnect between how your child would have felt in a situation and how she perceived the situation when it happened to someone else. It can be frustrating to know that your child is intelligent but can’t seem to grasp something that appears so obvious to us. This is cognitive empathy. While being patient with your daughter and her developing brain, use situations like these as tools to strengthen this skill. Ask questions like:
“You loved the swimsuit you wore today, what if Sarah had told you that her grandma wears the same one and everyone laughed? I know you would pretend to be okay, but inside you’d be upset. Do you think that Ashley felt the same way?”
“Do you think Ashley will keep that suit or will she ask to get a new one? Either way, do you think she’ll be nervous to go swimming again – worrying what people might say?”
“What options did Ashley have to respond to this situation? If she didn’t feel comfortable telling Sarah that she wasn’t being nice, or confident enough to just say she liked her suit and move on, what else could she do? She wouldn’t want to cry in front of everyone, right? So she sort of had to pretend it was no big deal.”
“Let’s assume that Ashley was upset, but didn’t want to show it. What could you have said to ease her embarrassment? Wouldn’t it be nice to say something even if you aren’t sure she is upset – just in case?”
Cognitive empathy is a skill that comes with time, what seems so obvious to us isn’t always apparent to tweens. Find opportunities to ask questions about situations that get her to see different perspectives. I love the questions that make you wonder what happened later – “what happened when that girl went home,” “what might she be nervous about the next day,” “if you could re-write that scene, how would you change it?” Don’t just ask “how would you feel in that situation,” dig deeper.
The bystander. I hope by now, everyone is aware that the biggest deterrent for bullying and mean girls are the bystanders. I taught my daughter early on that if you see a situation where someone is being mean to someone else it’s never ‘if’ you will do something, but ‘what’ you will do. Doing nothing is NEVER an option. We role play scenarios and she comes up with ways that she could intervene. But here’s the key: you need to work with your daughter’s personality. Is she shy? Then asking her to boldly and loudly speak up is not realistic. But she could walk up to a girl being picked on at lunch and say “Mrs. Brown asked me to get you for her, she needs to see you.” And then as they are walking away, quietly tell the girl “she doesn’t really want to see you, you just didn’t look like you wanted to be there anymore.” If she is really uncomfortable, or it’s a big crowd, she could always get a teacher or other adult.
The point is that we need to emphasize that being a bystander is never okay – there is always something she can do. And this habit kids have of witnessing something and pulling out their phones to videotape it? Don’t even get me started, it’s disgusting. Let her know that while it’s tempting to be the one who captures the drama, it is unacceptable. This would be an offense of the highest order in our house.
Annoying versus mean. This seems so trivial but I’m here to tell you that it is a concept that some tweens don’t quite get. Annoying is not the same thing as mean. When my daughter started middle school, I began to notice a stream of complaints coming from her group of friends about Kerri – she’s always bragging about how much money her family has, she has like 4 pairs of Uggs and they’re not even the fake ones, she’s always trying to hug me, she’s always tweeting about Justin Bieber, and on and on. When I had my daughter alone, I asked her about this. She said “I see why no one likes Kerri, she’s so annoying!”
If girls use annoyance as a justification for being mean to someone, no wonder mean girl activities are so prevalent. And for me, realizing that kids can have difficulty realizing that annoying people aren’t always mean people was quite the a-ha moment. It’s one of those ‘of course!’ realizations that I can’t believe I didn’t recognize earlier. So as simple as it may sound, make sure your daughter understands that being annoying isn’t the same as someone who is causing her harm. I made sure to let my daughter know that yep, the things Kerri does certainly would annoy me too. But has she put you down? Said anything mean about you or to you? Tried to get other people to not like you? We’ve had lots of talks now about Kerri and many other girls. It’s totally understandable to be annoyed by people, but it’s never okay to be mean to them. Explain how to tolerate feelings of annoyance, but to still be kind. Use real life examples of when someone has an annoying tendency versus when someone is doing something mean that requires a response. Practice scenarios for each.
Role model. Finally, take a quick inventory of how you interact with the world around you, and how much of that your daughter takes in. You probably already know if you tend to be hard on those around you, if you have a judgmental tone, or if you say things about people that might be unkind. I think most of us are self-aware enough to know if there are areas of our personalities that might not present the best example for our daughters. If you are aware of such an area, take this opportunity to work on it. And tell your daughter that have been thinking that you don’t feel great about how you have treated so-and-so, and you are going to work on improving that. There’s a saying that kids can’t be what they don’t see. Make sure she is seeing in you what you want her to be.
During the process of writing this piece, I saw two different posts on Facebook from friends who were looking for advice about how to handle what boiled down to mean girl situations with their daughters. One girl is in 7th grade, one is in 2nd. Sometimes I feel as if I can’t type fast enough or find the right words to do my part to help. And I know I’m not alone. We all wish we could find that one perfect thing to say that would make girls understand just how hurtful they can be, and how long-lasting the pain can be for those they hurt. While the problem is starting to feel bigger, I maintain that the answer is smaller. Start in your own home, with your own daughter. Help her see the world from the perspective of others and empathize with them, teach her to never be silent when others are being picked on, help her realize that annoying people may be just that and nothing more, and make sure she sees in you the person you want her to become. We may not be able to completely eliminate this problem for the world, but we may be able to improve it for even just a few. I think that’s a good start.