Raising a child with strong character and good values isn't easy, and if you've got a daughter, there's a solid chance you want to do anything in your power to avoid her becoming a real-life Regina George. Yep, it's time to talk mean girls. We've all encountered them in the wild, whether from being bullied at school or having the pleasure of dealing with them as adults (because it seems like some bullies never actually grow out of it).
Thankfully, you can raise a daughter without her turning into a modern-day Plastic, and you don't have to lose your own sanity in the process. Scary Mommy tapped a trio of experts who shared their wisdom about how to raise daughters who aren't mean girls, so you can ensure your sweet, loving baby girl stays true to herself as she grows up.
Where does "mean girl" behavior stem from, anyway?
First, it's important to define what it actually means to, well, be mean, and what's really behind those bad behaviors. According to licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Cara Goodwin, Ph.D., "mean girl" behavior is known by the pros as "indirect aggression" — meaning it's "different from physical aggression because it's often more subtle and/or invisible, such as teasing, gossiping, and excluding others," says Goodwin.
Educational psychologist Reena B. Patel adds that these types of aggressions aim to "harm the social relationships and status of an individual. Essentially, people who engage in relational aggression aim to make you look bad to others." It's a power dynamic that "often stems from competitiveness," says Dr. Taish Malone, Ph.D., licensed professional counselor with Mindpath Health, elaborating, "The underpinning here is insecurity, aka the feeling of inadequacy and questioning of self-identity and confidence. Bullying is a projection of this by way of aggression and manipulation.”
When does it start, and what does it look like?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the makings of a mean girl can happen as early as elementary school and get worse through the teen years as certain personality types will compete not only when it comes to schoolwork, sports and extracurriculars, and appearances, but also for the affections of others, says Malone. "Mean girl behavior often occurs as adolescent girls try to establish their position in the social hierarchy," adds Goodwin. "This behavior also commonly happens in response to peer pressure," a hallmark of the tween and teen stage.
Unfortunately, mean girl behaviors can be both big and small, and most times, they'll happen when you're not around to catch them. Per Malone, bullying behaviors can include criticizing, ostracizing, manipulative tactics, and spreading rumors and/or sharing character-damaging content, and can occur both in person or digitally. "Both can be equally effective and hurtful and should be taken seriously," she says. There are also some more low-key forms of bullying to be mindful of, says Patel, such as comparisons meant to put someone down, controlling behavior, and poor empathy skills.
Even if you aren't quite sure your daughter has gone full mean girl, Malone says, "Many times, there are gateway behaviors that can be indicators that parents would be wise to take note of. Mimicking the words or gestures of characters or people that have mean girl behavior; showing envy or jealousy for others by way of gossip; mistreatment, manipulation, and/or teasing of siblings; and aggressive attempts at garnering attention" can all fall somewhere on the mean girl spectrum. Generally speaking, per Patel, "Bullying almost always involves a power imbalance and a need for control."
Could you be making it worse?
Unfortunately, yep. "Parents can sometimes perpetuate mean girl behaviors without realizing it," says Malone. "While they may not see the connection, certain ideals that are passed down can breed mean girl traits." Some examples: "Parents who have high expectations of their children in such a way that they develop comparative thinking habits to see if they measure up; setting up a 'win at all costs' attitude where unhealthy competitiveness can be followed by clear disappointment or berating if your child doesn't measure up; and parents who doubt reports from others about their child's behavior can unwittingly silently influence or encourage their sense of entitlement."
Also, "Parents sometimes fail to notice when their children are engaging in the opposite of 'mean girl' behavior (i.e., kind, generous, and inclusive behavior) and instead only pay attention when their child is unkind to other children," says Goodwin. "When parents only pay attention to the unkind behavior, they are rewarding it with their attention."
How can you nip it in the bud?
Don't panic and start making plans for boarding school — you can help course-correct. "Not every mean gesture stems from intentional malice," says Malone, with Patel noting that you do want to address the bad behaviors ASAP.
If you've still got littles at home, "it is important for parents to recognize early signs of this behavior and teach their children more socially appropriate and empathetic behavior," says Goodwin. "Young children often tease or exclude others without realizing the consequences of their actions, so parents should try to intervene in these situations and explain to their children the perspectives of others."
Adds Malone, "Take heed to reports of similar behaviors from teachers, coaches, sitters, and others who may see your child interact outside of your presence. Parents with a 'not my child' attitude may miss an opportunity to have timely intervention to ward off their escalating behavior."
Then, Malone suggests approaching your child with love and support. "Listen to their feelings and thoughts when you talk to them about their behavior. Set clear expectations and show support, but the child will show their growth. Explain the importance of kindness and compassion."
Parents should avoid comparing their children to others. This "reinforces the idea of competition among peers and a social hierarchy," says Goodwin, noting, "Parents should also be careful about using excessive praise or labeling their child ('pretty,' 'smart,' etc.). They may feel like they cannot live up to their parents' expectations and thus put others down to make themselves feel better. Finally, parents should express their unconditional love and acceptance, regardless of their behavior or their performance in school or sports."
As you likely already know, this behavior is "in no way isolated to the developmental years," says Malone. "These forms of bullying are unfortunately alive and well among adults, developing into targeted harassment. This is especially true if many of the aforementioned signs have been missed or not addressed. While many simply grow out of this behavior as they mature, some develop more compounded personality traits that further complicate their bullying. Yesterday's mean girls can evolve into the difficult surly coworker, the disgruntled sister-in-law, or the overly critical frenemy in your book club."
Remember: There's no shame in needing more support.
If your efforts at curbing the bad behavior don't seem to be working, Malone recommends finding a professional counselor who specializes in children and budding social constructs. "Sometimes it's easier for children to speak to a stranger with no biases to feel safe enough to get to the core of the problem," she says, also suggesting enlisting "the support of loved ones and other trusted adults in your child's life to encourage growing past the behavior." And, especially as your child gets older and spends less time under your wing, "Being cognizant of all the possible influences in their lives helps."
Just think, if Regina George herself could reform her mean girl ways, all hope is never lost.