The small square of folded notebook paper slid across the linoleum, stopping at the toe of my Puma. I looked around the deserted library aisle where I was sitting on the floor reading A Wrinkle in Time. No one. I put my book down and picked up the note. My heart thudded as I read the message from two girls who only hours before I’d thought of as friends. They addressed me as “It” and used the F-word to tell me exactly what they thought of my clothes, my hair, and my good grades. Hot tears slicked my cheeks as I crumpled the note and shoved it into the front pocket of my Levi’s. I scurried to the bathroom, where I stayed until the recess bell called me back to my sixth grade English class.
Thus began weeks of harassment, exclusion, rumors, and rejection. The two mean girls passed me nasty notes in class and out, they told other kids not to hang out with me, and they made sure I didn’t get invited to after school get-togethers. I didn’t know why my so-called friends had turned on me and I was too scared and ashamed to tell a teacher or even my parents. The only choice I could see was to endure it on my own.
Fast forward a few decades, and my 11-year-old is now beginning middle school. While both boys and girls can be unkind, as the parent of three girls, I mostly hear about meanness of the female variety. It’s during middle school that surging hormones and shifting alliances make it ripe for girls to test their social power, sometimes maliciously. Encountering a mean girl or worse, being her ongoing victim, is painful and traumatizing, especially if you don’t know what to do. So far nothing major has gone down, but if it does, here’s what I want my daughter to know about dealing with mean girls:
1. Meanness is never okay.
Whether there’s a clear reason for someone’s unkind behavior or not, it’s never all right for them to bully you in any way — even if you think you provoked the negative reaction. For days, I wracked my brain for a reason why those two girls were so mean to me, as though I’d done something to deserve that kind of treatment. I couldn’t come up with anything — and even if I had, it didn’t make their behavior okay.
2. Believe in yourself.
Don’t let anyone else ever tell you who you are or what you’re about. When those girls told me how awful I was, I started to believe them. It shook my confidence to the bone. You’re amazing — imperfections, screw-ups and all. Don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise.
3. Ask for help.
Some kids can confront the pain in the ass who’s making them miserable. Others, like middle school me, cannot. If you’ve tried resolving the issue on your own or don’t feel comfortable trying, ask for help. You can go to a teacher, your parents, or another trusted adult. I know this can be hard, especially if the mean girl in question is popular and the other girls want to stay in her good graces, or if she’s a pro at fooling the grown ups. Know that you don’t have to deal with this on your own. There is always someone who will listen, understand, and help.
4. Be an upstander.
Remember how I said meanness is never okay? That’s true whether it’s happening to you or someone else. Either be the help or get help. It’s tempting to do nothing to avoid conflict or be part of the group, but blowing it off means it will probably happen again. When you and your friends stand up against mean girls, you’re telling them they can’t get away with their crappy behavior. That might be enough to deter them next time.
5. Mean girls are human too.
While it won’t make you feel any better, putting yourself in the shoes of a mean girl might help you understand where she’s coming from. I knew that the parents of one of the girls who bullied me were divorcing, but it wasn’t until a year or so later that I learned her father was an alcoholic and routinely broke into her house at night, drunk. Scary. While that fact didn’t take my pain away, it did help me see there was more going on for her than simply wanting to hurt me.
6. Make sure YOU’RE not a mean girl.
No one’s immune from having a bad day or getting majorly annoyed with a classmate. Check in with yourself though, and make sure you’re not taking out your frustrations routinely on someone else. Being a mean girl takes a lot of work and isn’t much fun. If you’re overwhelmed, tell me. There are ways to handle those sad or angry feelings that don’t include making someone else miserable.
One of my teachers eventually busted the two girls harassing me and had them suspended. Having that teacher on my side gave me the courage to tell my parents and confront the girls — who apologized publicly and quite sincerely. I begrudgingly forgave them, but kept my distance, finding a new group of awesome friends. The experience definitely sucked, but also taught me to what to do in similar, future situations. You see, the world is full of unpleasant people. Encouraging kick-ass self-confidence in my daughter and facing bullies head-on won’t make the mean girls go away, but it sure will make it harder for them to rule the hallways.