It’s hard to believe, but your sweet little girl could be the class bully. Here’s how to recognize the signs, and bring out the kinder, caring side you know is in there.

By Sunny Sea Gold
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I met up for tacos and margaritas with a mom-friend the other day, and she confided something surprising: She thinks her daughter might be turning into a mean girl—the kind of kid who uses her social power to make other kids feel bad. I was shocked. After all, our daughters are only in first grade!

But experts say that mean-girl behavior like teasing and excluding people can start early. If you worry that your daughter—whether she’s in kindergarten or high school—has a mean streak, keep an eye out for these signs:

• Does she try to control her friends? “Mean girls” and other bullies tend to be very aware of the social cliques and hierarchy, and try to dominate others in order to boost their own social status, according to Just Say Yes: Youth Equipped to Succeed, a nonprofit group focused on teen character development. In younger kids, this controlling behavior can come off as bossiness. Talking a lot about friend cliques (who’s “in,” who’s “out”) and their own popularity is another warning sign.

• Has a parent or teacher ever complained about her? Bullying and mean-girling can go on for a long time before parents gets wind of it. So when a teacher, parent, or family member expresses concern about something your daughter has said or done to hurt a friend, listen up.

• Is she really, really confident? Self-confidence is a great thing for young girls. But sometimes being extremely confident and popular can make kids feel they’re entitled to boss around or even ostracize children they consider their inferiors, family therapist Ronald Mah writes in his book Getting Beyond Bullying and Exclusion PreK-5.

• Does she blame others for her bad behavior? Shifting blame is a classic characteristic of kids who bully, according to Stopbullying.gov. The same goes for “sneaky” behavior and manipulation.

If you’ve checked off a couple of those red flags, first, take a deep breath, and keep in mind that it doesn’t mean your daughter is a bad kid, or that you’re a bad parent. “Many times kids who are being mean aren’t feeling good about themselves, or something difficult is going on in the family,” says Betsy Brown Braun, PhD, author of You’re Not the Boss of Me: Brat-Proofing Your 4- to 12-Year-Old Child. “Think about what the context is that could be bringing this behavior out in your child.” Aggressive behavior can sometime be a sign of depression or anxiety—if you suspect this might be the case, check in with your pediatrician, who can recommend a mental-health professional for evaluation and treatment.

Next, talk to her teachers: Ask if they’ve noticed any bullying behavior, and if so, how you can work together to nip it in the bud. Check if the school has a conflict-resolution plan in place to bring bullies and bullied kids together to talk. Mean-girl behavior often happens in groups, so sometimes getting the kids together one-on-one can help defuse the bad behavior and let the girls see each other in a new light, says Brown Braun.

Brown Braun also reminds parents to be extra careful how they talk around their children—even (or especially!) when you think they’re not listening. Gossiping about friends or celebrities over the phone, for example, models judgmental behavior and can have a big impact on how your child treats her friends.

Whatever do you, don’t write off your daughter’s meanness as “just a phase.” As parents, we want to see the best in our kids, but choosing to notice and address the worst in them will benefit their happiness in the long run.