Leigh Jones* knew her shy, nine-year-old daughter Maggie* was having trouble with the girls in her class. “She just wasn’t moving along with the kids socially,” says the Toronto mom. The worst for Maggie was she noticed she wasn’t being invited to any birthday parties…yet, the girls in her class went on and on about them in front of her, magnifying her feelings of exclusion. “Then she started having a lot of fake sick days,” says Leigh. “And we thought she was developing alopecia because the hair on top of her head was falling out. It turns out she was pulling her hair out.”
While Leigh’s solution may seem drastic – moving Maggie to another school a year sooner to get a fresh start – it’s not uncommon. She wonders: how can we help our daughters through mean girl madness? When we do we get involved? Here’s some Mean Girl Management 101 for you and your daughter.
Call It Out: Work with your daughter on assertively calling out behaviours from bullies. “So saying ‘That hurts my feelings’, girls will respond that they don’t care,” says Rosalind Wiseman, whose book Queen Bees & Wannabes later inspired the hit film Mean Girls. “Instead, name the behaviour and say ‘That was really mean.’” But also brace your daughter for the expected response. The mean girl will likely shoot back with a similar accusation. “And then she should respond with: ‘Me saying I’m mad at you isn’t mean. It’s telling you how I feel and you can’t take my feelings away from me,” says Rosalind.
Avoid Passive Language: “I teach young people to avoid passive phrases such as: ‘Please stop, that hurts.’ That’s what you’d say to a friend,” says Barbara Coloroso, author of The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander From Pre-School to High School. “I have yet to figure out how people think they can tell bullies what to do.”
Take a Breather: This one’s for you moms. “Moms have to get out of that mother bear mode,” says Susan Wellman, founder of The Ophelia Project, an initiative working on how girls treat peers. “Girls can be terribly upset one day and then make up three days later. Meanwhile mother has gone ballistic so it’s almost like you need to wait and see.” That includes confronting the bully yourself. “No parent should ever go up to another girl who they think is being mean to their daughter and scream at them about how mean they are,” adds Rosalind. “It might make you feel self-righteous in the moment, but it doesn’t solve the problem. The girl doesn’t respect you and she won’t think you’re right. It’s not what happens.”
Form Her Own Social Group: Even if it’s just one friend – that’s all it takes. Encourage your daughter to move away from the bully group and seek out new girls to hang out with. “Make sure they have a strong social group of their own,” says Barbara. “Bullies tend to pick on kids who aren’t with friends but who are alone.”
Realize She Has to go Through It: Girls today want to hear their mom’s experiences of going through mean girl madness themselves. But they also want their mothers to realize that they have their own lives, says Rosalind. “You can’t hover over her and say ‘Can’t you see how dysfunctional this relationship is?’” she says. “She has to go through this herself, which is terrible for parents.”
Strategies for Creating Some Distance
Is the bully a close friend? Help your daughter move away from this friend, but understand it’s a long term progression. “It’s a process of understanding what they can tolerate in a friendship and what they can’t,” says Rosalind Wiseman, author of New York Times bestseller Queen Bees & Wannabes . Ask your daughter what the top three things she wants in a friendship are. Then, ask her the top three things to describe the friendship she’s in. “Then you compare the list and ask your daughter that if her lists don’t match, why is she in that friendship,” says Rosalind.
*names have been changed
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, Nov/Dec 2016.