As parents, we address many difficult issues with our kids. Heartache is one of them. Talking about “mean girls” heartache is not an easy topic to navigate.
Typically this type of behavior peaks around 7th grade. Yet, as evidenced by popular reality TV, it never really goes away. Therefore, it is important to help give our kids the emotional tools to deal with this problem. Perhaps as adults, we can learn a thing or two as we support and coach our kids.
Recently I was interviewed for the online magazine Fatherly. In Help Your Daughter Cope with Mean Girl Bullshit, I discuss ways we can help daughters as they navigate “mean girl” issues. Take a minute to read it, then read below for additional information.
First, lay the groundwork.
Talking about mean girls when kids are adolescents requires some groundwork. Make sure your home is a safe place where kids can feel validated and heard. They need a sense of belonging – and what better place than home? Try not to minimize their feelings with statements such as “Oh, it’s not that big of a deal.” or “You think that’s bad! Just wait!” What they are experiencing is very real and they need assistance labeling and navigating those feelings.
Of course, like most conversations, it is best to start talking to our youngest kids about healthy friendships and what makes a good friend. Talk about what they like about their friends. Are they kind? Do they share the same interests? This is essentially a values-based conversation: What is important to you? Openly discuss what you like about your friends and why they are important to you. Refrain from insulting or complaining about friends – you are modeling negative behavior.
Teach your kids resilience – the ability to bounce back when grappling with a difficult situation, conversation, or event. Help them learn to take things in stride by modeling that behavior. It’s okay to own our feelings of sadness, disappointment and hurt, but then we need to move on and learn from the experience. Besides, sometimes it’s okay to say goodbye to some friendships and start new ones with people who share our values and interests.
Assertive communication skills are crucial in helping your kids express themselves. “I feel” statements, such as “I feel hurt when you do X” allows the communicator to express their emotions without blaming the other person. No one can argue with someone’s feelings! Help your kids practice saying these statements.
Next, identify behavior
Being mean and being bullied are not the same thing. Be able to distinguish between negative behaviors.
Rudeness is usually spontaneous and a one-time occurance. The person being rude doesn’t usually intend to hurt the feelings of the subject, yet it often does.
Being mean is intended to hurt someone but is not usually repeated behavior. “I don’t want to play with you today. Maybe tomorrow.”
A conflict is usually a disagreement of sorts. Two people cannot agree on something but it is not necessarily a mean behavior or intended to hurt another person.
Bullying is often what we refer to when we are using the term “mean girl”. This behavior is intentional, repeated, and meant to socially, physically, and emotionally isolate or hurt another person. People bully when they tease, exclude someone from social events, spread rumors, or blantantly ignore another person. They can also be cyber-bullied through social media apps such as Instant Messaging. And of course, there is physical bullying.
Rudeness, meanness, and conflict do not only affect middle-school kids — adults deal with this on a daily basis as well. We’ve learned a thing or two over the years. Depending on the individual situation, parents can give kids pointers on how to handle the problem. Parents can ask their kids how they might solve the issue for themselve. (“What can you try? What have you tried?”, use assertive language, ignore the situation, find new friends.) It is important to help your kids figure this out – with your guidance – rather than jumping in and taking over.
Bullying, on the other hand, can have severe consquences if not addressed. If you notice your child seems “off”, take note: Are they refusing to attend school? No longer interested in their hobbies? Grades are dropping? Feeling depressed? Studies have shown that individuals who were bullied as kids carry those scars into adulthood. We want to help our kids grow from these negative experiences, not be permanently harmed.
What can parents do?
- Do not call the parents of the other students. That may cause more harm than good. Rather, start with the school.
- Remove their digital devices from their bedrooms at night. They don’t need to be reading negative comments – or making them. If they don’t see the messages, they can’t react – and those who bully want the reaction.
- Help them build confidence. This decreases their chance at being bullied as they are no longer an ‘easy target’.
- Encourage them to walk away from the situation and not react.
- Tell a trusted adult right away.
- If you witness a situation, step in (keeping their own safety in mind, of course):
- Have your child alert an adult.
- Tell the person who is being bullied that their mom is looking for them – then lead them away from the situation.
- Stand up for the individual being bullied or teased. (“Stop that.“)
- Sit with the person at lunch who is often teased or bullied.
- Help your child understand why individuals bully. It may be lack of self-esteem, abuse issues at home, or they may be posturing to be in a position of ‘power’. Typically it has nothing to do with the person being bullied, they just happen to be an easy target.
- Get your kid into therapy, if necessary.
- If your kid is doing the bullying, don’t ignore it with “kids will be kids” or “not my kid”. It’s your job as a parent to teach and talk about consent, respect, kindness. Take their phone away. Set boundaries. Get them into therapy if necessary.
Talking about mean girls is part of a larger problem. Helping our kids cope with the negative nastiness that is so pervasive in our current culture requires diligence. When we model kind, respectful behavior and if we align ourselves with individuals who reflect those values, we can change this culture of “mean”. Elect and revere leaders, such as goverment officials, celebrities, and coaches, for positive qualities. There is no question that the behavior of those who lead trickles down to the masses. As parents we must be especially clued in to who is influencing this next generation.
As Ghandi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world” by modeling kindness and respect and teaching your kids to behave similarly. There’s no place for bullying in this world. Let’s do our part to stop it.
To read more, I recommend checking out Untangled by Lisa Damour.
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*Photo: Adobe Stock