Bullies, frenemies, gossips. Few girls make it through adolescence without an encounter with a mean girl. These strategies and talking points will help you set your daughter up for success.
We all remember certain painful incidents from childhood and adolescence: the birthday invitation that wasn’t received, the seat that wasn’t saved, the snide comments that embarrassed us or even made us cry. While the latest data from the National Center for Education Studies shows that the number of students who reported being bullied at school decreased by 6 percent from 2011 to 2015, nearly 22 percent of middle and high school students still said they had been bullied. The most common forms of bullying were being made fun of, called names, or insulted and being the subject of rumors—all of which fall under the umbrella of relational aggression, or behavior that is intended to harm people by damaging or manipulating their relationships with others. Girls are particularly savvy at relational aggression, and they demonstrate it early.
“Even in girls as young as 2 or 3 years old, you will see a little girl run away, or plug her ears and close her eyes, when someone makes her mad," explains Rachel Simmons, co-founder of Girls Leadership and author of Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls. “She’s saying, ‘You didn’t do what I want? Then I’m going to remove myself from you and our relationship.’”
As you might expect, that is a very potent weapon. “You cannot underestimate how traumatic and heartbreaking it is when a girl feels that a relationship is threatened or she feels abandoned,” says Simmons. “There is evidence that girls are more likely than boys to base their self-esteem on friendships and that they are more reactive to stress and abandonment in their relationships.”
So what can you do to give your daughter the tools she’ll need to navigate the bumpy road of conflict and bullying? RealSimple.com spoke with experts to find out.
Validate Her Feelings.
If your daughter is the target of relational aggression, the first step is empathy. “Especially with younger kids, it’s very important to help them build their emotional vocabulary,” says Simmons. “Try saying, ‘You must be feeling really sad and left out right now.’ You want your child to name her feelings in the moment so she can develop healthy ways of coping.”
Most young children do not have the language skills to fully express their feelings, so you can play reporter and get to the root of whatever emotions your child is experiencing. “Often when a child comes home and says, ‘I don’t like so and so,’ parents will say, ‘Well, you should. She’s nice,’” says Maria Clark Fleshood, a clinical psychologist and author of From Tweens to Teens: The Parents’ Guide to Preparing for Adolescence. But you should resist the urge to brush aside these seemingly off-hand comments and instead use them as a springboard to a discussion. “Replace that with, ‘Tell me why you think that girl isn’t nice,’” Fleshood says. “When you are curious and engage with your child, your child learns both that it is safe to come and speak to you and that her feelings matter.”
Brainstorm Solutions Together.
Don’t stop at listening to why your daughter is upset with Susie. “Once your child is talking, ask, ‘What do you feel like doing when you’re with a girl who is not being nice?’ This helps your child navigate and go inside herself to think about her options,” says Fleshood. “Then validate her suggestions: ‘I can understand that when you’re hurting, you might want to hit back, but what is another way you could react?’” By allowing your daughter to work through her own solutions, she will learn that she has the ability to respond to conflict on her own.
Watch Your Language.
It’s easy to call someone a “mean girl,” but it isn’t necessarily fair, says Simmons. “I would caution parents not to label kids,” she says. “Your daughter is likely to be going to school with this peer for a long period of time. A mean girl in fourth grade can become a perfectly nice, decent person by sixth grade.” Instead, label the behavior that was hurtful, not the girl herself.
Along the same lines, take note of how you handle your own relationships. Are you gossiping about the other parents in the PTA? “If your daughter hears you talking negatively about another mom or another child,” says Simmons, “you can bet she’s learning that’s an acceptable way to handle conflict.”
Prepare Her for the Challenges of Social Media.
“Many kids are getting access to social media before they’re ready,” warns Simmons. “As a parent, you need to have access to what they’re doing online in every situation.” And while Instagram and Snapchat may seem like a playground of fun filters and stickers, there are a lot of stressors that come along with using them. “I tell girls they will feel left out,” says Simmons. “Once you can see what every single person is doing, you will learn you can’t be everywhere at once. Tell your daughter what to expect and encourage her to talk to you when she’s feeling upset.”
Maintain Her Trust.
As much as you might want to, you won’t be able to solve all your daughter’s problems. “Some girls won’t talk to their parents because they know their parents will pick up the phone and call the teacher, but that can be humiliating and make a situation worse,” says Simmons. “It’s important to be respectful of your daughter and say from the outset, ‘We need to talk about whether or not you would be comfortable with me sharing what’s happening with another adult in your life, like a teacher.” That said, if you are ever truly worried about your child’s physical or emotional safety, don’t hesitate to take action. “There is a point when the parent has the right to say ‘no more,’” says Fleshood.
Create Family Time.
Whether it’s a family dinner, a board game night, or a trip to Starbucks for a treat, create the space and time to truly talk (and most important, listen) to your daughter at least once a week. “Tell her you read a story about a girl who was being bullied. You can ask, ‘Does this happen at your school? Has it happened to you? How do you think you would handle a similar situation?” Fleshood suggests. “Just be sure to listen and not lecture.”
No parent wants to see her child hurt or in distress, but try to keep your cool. “Difficult moments are learning opportunities,” Simmons points out. “They teach girls what they want, how to advocate for themselves, how to compromise, and how to forgive. Think about how much you learned from your friendships”—even during their most difficult moments.
For more strategies and advice, read about three ways to stop bullying in its tracks.