Standing Up to ‘Mean Girls’
A child psychologist explains social bullying among young girls
I know a lot of you are putting on your favorite pink shirt to watch Mean Girls for the umpteenth time.
After all, this is a modern classic. So much so that October 3 has become #MeanGirlsDay.
From Heathers to Mean Girls, these ‘rites of passage’ movies have given us insight into the lives of teenage girls. While they may be full of snobs, cliques and at times, cruel behavior, they can’t fully prepare any girl for the reality of social bullying.
Parents, you may know social bullying all too well and not even realize it. This occurs when a group decides to leave someone out on purpose or tells other kids not be friends with a certain child or teen.
But unlike your favorite teen movie, there's not always a happy ending for the kids being bullied.
Social bullying, along with verbal bullying, is often referred to as “mean girl” behavior, said Lisa Elliott, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and clinic manager of Cook Children’s Behavioral Health Clinic in Denton.
She says this form of bullying also includes name-calling, backstabbing, gossiping and spreading rumors.
“When ‘mean girls’ take this negative and aggressive behavior into the world of social media, it now includes cyberbullying, making it even more hurtful and instilling feelings of powerlessness,” Elliott said. “This can be quite painful and has the potential to be psychologically harmful.”
Girls may engage in this type of behavior for several reasons, including:
- Peer pressure.
- Trying to improve their status on the social ladder.
- Excluding those who may be perceived as a threat to their social status.
Regardless of the type of bullying, three elements are generally present:
- An imbalance of power.
- Aggressive behavior intended to hurt someone emotionally and/or physically.
- Pleasure in observing the pain (or assuming there is pain) caused to the person being bullied.
Elliott says your daughter’s response to the mean girl is key.
“All bully behavior is intended to empower the bully, so your daughter’s response is critical – she must be able to acknowledge what the “mean girl(s)” are doing, but also communicate that they don’t have emotional power over her,” Elliott said.
She says if the victim communicates any type of negative emotion (verbally and/or nonverbally) – whether that be pain, hurt, rejection, fear, anger, frustration etc. then she has validated the bully. The bully will only be encouraged to continue the “mean girl” behavior, simply because it empowers them.
Instead, girls should try to respond to the bullies by using select words such as ‘so,’ ‘OK,’ ‘who cares,’ ‘whatever’ and ‘big deal.’
“These words communicate ‘I hear you, but you have no impact on me,’” Elliott said. “However, equally important is the tone in which these words are communicated. It is critical these words are conveyed with NO emotion! If ‘mean girls’ pick up on any emotional weakness, they will continue the negative behavior.”
Another strategy to apply is humor, where you laugh at yourself thus deflecting any hurtfulness.
“It’s important your daughter displays confidence and can defend herself in an assertive manner that is respectful, does not lower her to their level and does not encourage them,” Elliott said.
In addition to having a prepared response, Elliott encourages girls to stay strong, appear confident and smile, primarily because “mean girls” are quite adept at discerning which girls they can manipulate and control. The more confident your daughter portrays herself (not appearing dejected, insecure, hurt, nervous, left-out), the less likely the “mean girls” will repeat their aggressive behavior to her.
Equally important is being a positive bystander. If your daughter sees “mean girl” behavior happening to others, ask her not to stand by and watch. When “mean girls” do not have an audience, they lose power.
To foster your daughter’s self-confidence, help her find areas she can feel success in, such as school, sports, church, community service clubs, or talents like singing or playing an instrument.
You should also monitor her computer and cell phone, and encourage her to spend less time on social media. If bullying expands onto social media, then you need to talk to her teacher, coach or another school official.
While we’ve addressed “mean girls” in this article, no child is bully-proof.
Elliott points to the death of David Molak, a 16-year old San Antonio boy, as an example of the harm that comes from the constant harassment a child receives in the world of cyber bullying. She offers parents the following talking points when speaking to their child about bullying:
- Even people who say they're your friends can bully you.
- You should confront your friends when they're being hurtful to you or others.
- Retaliating may feel good temporarily, but refusing to stoop to the bully's level will win you more popularity in the long run.
- When you hear a false rumor, just ignore it and be yourself.
- You're most likeable when you respect yourself and others.
- Bullies usually have their own insecurities. Returning meanness with kindness is the best way to break down their defense.
In the end, kids should know they may be the best resources to end bullying where they live.
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Get to know Lisa Elliott
Lisa Elliott is a licensed psychologist and clinic manager of Cook Children’s Psychology Clinic, located at 3201 Teasley Lane, Ste. 202, Denton, TX 76210. Cook Children’s Psychology provides care focused on children’s behavior, from ages 3 years through 17. The Behavioral Health Center brings all services together in an expanded space that will provide a talented, dedicated team of caregivers, physicians and professionals with the facilities, resources, tools and programs they need to ensure that these most vulnerable children receive the high quality treatment they need and deserve. Click to learn more. To make an appointment, call our Intake Department at 682-885-3917.