How to prevent your daughter from being a mean girl—or being devastated by one.
At what age do girls act mean today? It’s not when it used to be.
I’ve had a good friend for decades, and we are anything but mean to each other. We are totally supportive: We call for advice or simply to listen to each other’s tales of woe. We worry when something is not going well in the other’s life.
Were we always this way? Not really. But neither of us can recall being overtly mean before high school — and my friend has a laser-sharp recall for events in her life. But by the time puberty hit, something had changed, and we were excluding girls from our group and gossiping with the best of them, telling others not to vote for someone in a class election or not to invite someone to a party.
These days, we hear of girls at younger ages exhibiting similar “mean girl” behaviors — excluding, isolating, spreading rumors verbally or posting lies online. It is disturbing to realize that very young children are acting deliberately to hurt classmates and friends. Admittedly 7-and 8-year-olds may not have the social skills or maturity to understand how their actions hurt others or how to act differently. That’s where parents come in.
Parental Encouragement Makes a Difference
Jamie Abaied and Sarah Stanger of the University of Vermont investigated the effects of parental input on the social adjustment of girls. Their study, “Socialization of coping in a predominantly female sample of caregivers: Contributions to children’s social adjustment in middle childhood,” published in the Journal of Family Psychology, looked at how parents’ teaching of coping skills helped 8-to-10-year-old girls manage stress and followed up six months later to assess their social development.
The youngsters and parents were videotaped as the girls tackled a difficult and frustrating tracing task. Parental encouragement was measured in terms of responsiveness, warmth, and attentiveness as their child worked. The girls whose parents offered positive encouragement that focused on problem-solving or persistence — “Take your time, keep trying,” or “Take a deep breath so you can calm down,” or “This is good practice for the next time you do a really hard task” — fared better socially. They had fewer social problems and higher-quality friendships. When parents were disengaged or encouraged their daughters to stop — “Do you want to stop?” or, “You don’t have to finish if you don’t want to” — the girls were less able to cope with social problems.
In other words, parents who engaged in positive ways with their daughters were more likely to have daughters who were able to handle the stress and difficulties girls face.
No Longer Just a Teen Problem
As a child and adolescent psychotherapist Katie Hurley writes in her book, No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confidence, and Compassionate Girls (link is external) — a guide for parents of girls between 3 and 13 — it is not unusual to hear complaints like this one from 7-year-old Jenna:
“I don’t want to go to school. All the girls hate me, so I’ll just be by myself again while they laugh at me. I can’t take it anymore.”
Relational or social aggression, commonly referred to as bullying, starts early — around third grade, the age of some of the girls in the University of Vermont study. Parents often feel that their children just have to deal with whatever pressures, insults, and social stigmas come their way. The thinking is, “I got through the rocky road of barbs and being left out, and so will my child.” But those parents were likely teenagers at the time, in a position to handle such issues with more maturity or perspective. Hurley points out this isn’t just a teen problem anymore, with younger girls facing bullying in person and on social media. “What happens in the elementary-school-age years directly affects what happens in the tween and teen years,” she says.