mean girls“Isn’t it kind of silly to think that tearing someone else down builds you up?”  -Sean Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens

Just a few days ago, I was meeting with two teenage girls and their mom and dad. The parents wanted counseling to help them lessen the conflict and emotional volatility of their communications. The younger daughter, soon to go into eight grade, suddenly announced that she wanted to change schools in the fall to escape a group of horrendously mean girls at her junior high.

As the parents were alternately upset, speechless and defensive, the older sister chimed in with enormous empathy, having been the recipient of similar attacks a few years prior. Although I was sad to see the suffering of this close family, I was relieved that both girls were openly sharing their painful experiences, enlisting the support of their parents in the process.

As I reflected on our session in the days that followed, I began thinking about how mean-spirited the public discourse has become in America. It’s hard to turn on the TV and not hear someone ranting about something. Lies are told and then exposed and then told again. Opposing sides on topics du jour get louder and meaner.

Rumors and lies not only influence politics but can also break up marriages, prompt kids to commit suicide, incite retaliation and violence, and turn amicable workplaces into emotional prisons. Is there anything we can do about this? How can we better prepare our children to enter a world that is so often cruel?

Error #1: Denial of the problem. My first piece of advice to parents is to recognize that gossip and rumors are part of your kids’ landscape, and assume your child or teen will be touched by them. In the course of growing up, most kids will have either been the one spreading gossip, been the target, been the bystander, been the bully or have been all of the above.

Part of their “job” is learning how to manage the world of peer relations. Most do this by trying out different behaviors and seeing what works and what doesn’t. If parents aren’t willing to believe that their “sweet little Sally” can sometimes be cruel, then they will be unable to guide Sally in the right direction.

Error #2: Telling your daughter or son not to play with the mean kids. All kids will have to learn to navigate the difficult and often changing waters of friendship. Although girls might be more verbally and emotionally cruel in their tactics of forming cliques, boys have their own ways of being intimidating or mean. We also know that kids that are “different”–due to things like sexual orientation, obesity, lack of physical prowess, race, or religion–are far more likely to be bullied.

Error #3: Thinking that just telling the teacher is always the best advice. Often when a child tells the teacher, they become even more targeted by their peers as not only weak but a tattletale as well. Boys are particularly averse to being seen as a snitch for “ratting someone out” even if not a friend. Although some schools now have anti-bullying strategies in place, far too many do not. 

Tip#1: The most important thing you can do as a parent is to keep communication lines open, particularly with your teenagers. This problem will not be solved by trying to control who they befriend. The very same child your son hates today may be a close friend tomorrow so hold back harsh judgments of either the kids involved or their parents.

Tip #2: Remember to see difficulties that your child encounters with peers as golden opportunities for learning. Since conflict is an inevitable part of life, each confrontation is an invitation to practice and strengthen skills. You can listen to what happened and inquire about alternative strategies that you could role-play together. You could share some of the mistakes you have made and what you learned.

Tip #3: Start talking about both the positive and painful sides of friendship as early as possible. Although issues of meanness grow exponentially by junior high, learning about how to get along in our social networks begins at birth and goes on for our lifetime. If you need some tips to enhance good communication, there are numerous resources available.

There are also some great books out there if you want to explore this topic further. If you are bringing up girls, try Rosalind Wiseman’s Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and the New Realities of Girl World. If you want a book that your younger daughter can read herself, check out Little Girls Can Be Mean: Four Steps to Bully-proof Girls in the Early Grades by Anthony and Lindert or Stand Up for Yourself and Your Friends by Patti Criswell.

If you are bringing up boys, two classics are Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood by William Pollack and Mary Pipher, or Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys by psychologists Kindlon and Thompson. For boys or girls eight years and up to read themselves, check out Speak Up and Get Along! by Scott Cooper.

Final Tip: Be the change you want to see in the world. Don’t say mean things. Don’t exclude others from conversations. See each person you encounter as part of your family. Look at others through the eyes of your heart.

Mean girl photo available from Shutterstock