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Recognizing and Preventing “Mean Girls”

These dangerous creatures tend to run in tight packs.  Using finely tuned senses, they are able to spot vulnerable prey, and once they have their sights set on a target, it is tough to refocus their attention.  With swift ferociousness, they can easily rip their prey apart, leaving a trail of destruction behind them.

I’m not talking about animals on the African plain.  I’m talking about “mean girls.”  These are the young ladies that are more than just “not nice.”  They can be downright cruel and vindictive towards others they deem weaker or those they see as a threat.  Their weapons of choice are emotional pain, put downs, degradation, and intentional humiliation.

Before you write off mean girls as myth, there’s a significant amount of evidence for their existence.  The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) found that one in four adolescent girls has been the perpetrator of or has participated in a violent act in the past year.  Another recent national survey revealed that 33 percent of female students reported being bullied at school.  And simply catch the national news, or read about teen suicides brought about by relentless teasing and emotional violence by other kids.  Mean girls do exist, and the pain they cause can be devastating.

So how do you know if your teenage daughter is one of these mean girls?  And what can you do to change her ways?

Stay Watchful

Today’s culture is tough on girls.  We live in a performance-driven society where worth is determined by how you look, what you do, or what you have.  Add to that the violence and sexuality portrayed in the media and the lack of solid female role models, and we have an environment ripe for mean girls.  The drive to compete for attention, popularity, or individuality, pushes these girls to be more sexual, more violent, or to devalue themselves based on the performance treadmill.

Though I don’t excuse their behavior, every mean girl I’ve met is really an insecure child, trying to live up to unreal expectations.  Generally, the meanness is a coping mechanism to survive in a performance-driven environment.  So these girls try to bring up their own self-esteem by insulting or putting other girls down.  If they can make another person look bad, perhaps they’ll look better.  This can also happen when a new girl arrives at school, or another girl gets more attention from guys, teachers and parents, making the other girls feel threatened.  Desperate for attention, the “mean girls” go out of their way to tear that person down.

As parents, we cannot shy away from the issue.  It does no good to stick our heads in the sand and say, “Well, that’s girls for you,” and leave it at that.  We need to look for the warning signs of a mean girl attitude, and nip them in the bud.  If you see your daughter developing habits of mocking other people, dressing more provocatively, picking fights with siblings or parents or growing an angry or spiteful demeanor, it’s time to dig a little deeper.

Stay Involved

Through my years counseling with parents and teens, I have seen how loving parents can be blindsided by a child who becomes a “mean girl.”  Mom and dad sit in my office, shocked to hear how their little girl is terrorizing someone else.  “We had no idea!” they tell me.  It can be difficult to see our children as capable of abusing or hurting other people.  But to prevent your daughter from becoming a mean girl, or to stop your daughter from a habit of bullying, it is critical that parents stay active and involved.

This may result in having all the passwords to your teen’s online accounts.  With the anonymity of the Internet, kids are finding what I call “digital courage,” and using Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites to say things that they wouldn’t say in person.  Cyber bullying is a growing problem as teens and adults lob emotional bombs while hiding behind the anonymity of the Internet.  So keep tabs on your child’s online activity.  If you discover any cyber bullying, deal with it as soon as possible.  Be sure to stress the damage that such abuse can cause, then enact stiff consequences for such behavior.

Stay involved with friends as well.  Ask questions about the people your daughter hangs out with, and what they do together.  If your child is hanging out with girls who are sarcastic or hurtful to others, talk honestly about the concerns you have.  Let her know that you don’t want her to be a mean girl, and character is more important than fitting in.

Staying involved with your child may also mean enlisting the help of pastors, teachers, mentors, or professionals to help your daughter work through some tough issues.  Many times the mean girls are the ones who were bullied before, and they are simply repeating what they have experienced.  Stay engaged with your child, and dig into the cause for their behavior.  Maintaining a relationship with your daughter goes a long way in overcoming a mean girl attitude.

Stay Proactive

I don’t think it’s enough to simply stop girls from bullying other girls.  To really make a change in the heart of a mean girl we have to be proactive!  And that can start in the home. Make a point to stop mocking others in your family.  If you find yourself participating in insulting others, or tearing people down, swallow your pride and admit your mistake in front of your daughter.  Let her know you are willing to change and become more positive with your family and others.

Another way to be proactive is to challenge your daughter to place herself in someone else’s shoes.  One of my favorite quotes is from the book To Kill a Mockingbird, in which a courageous lawyer tells his young daughter, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.”  This is the best advice for dealing with a mean girl.  Show them how their actions are affecting others.  Tell them how destructive bullying can be.  Ask them to see things from another person’s view.

Even if you don’t have a mean girl, you can still be proactive in preventing bullying, and that’s by encouraging the bystanders.  Too many times, others watch as kids are picked on, abused, or treated poorly.  The passivity of bystanders allows bullying to continue without consequences.  But if we model and teach our teens the importance of standing up for the little guy and protecting those who are being victimized, we can make a serious dent in the bullying problem.

A recent news story illustrates this idea.  A teenage girl, who had been the target of abuse from other girls, was nominated for the homecoming dance queen as a cruel joke.  Humiliated and distraught, the young lady had thoughts of suicide.  But once word got around about the mistreatment, the entire town rallied behind this young girl, offering her free haircuts, prom dresses, dinners, and limos.  They started a Facebook page, where caring individuals from all over showed their support and scolded the bullies.  And many of the kids from the school stood behind her and supported the joke nomination as a reality.  The day of the dance, this teenage girl went to homecoming with her head held high, and was crowned the dance queen.  The positive actions of the people in the town stopped the bullies dead in their tracks.  We need more people like that.  Let’s teach our kids to be brave and bold, and stand up for those who need assistance and help.

Mean girls don’t have to be a fact of life.  There are positive steps you can take to prevent it.  With a little proactive effort, we can transform that carnivorous lioness into a gentle kitten.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a residential counseling center for struggling teens located in Longview, Texas.  He has been married to his wife, Jan, for 40 years, has two kids, and four grandkids.  He lives in Longview, Texas, with the Heartlight staff, 60 high school kids, 25 horses, his dog, Stitch, two llamas, and a prized donkey named Toy.

His past involvement as a youth pastor, Young Life area director, and living with more than 2,800 teens has prepared Mark to share his insights and wisdom about parenting pre-teens and adolescents. You can find out more about Heartlight at HeartlightMinistries.orgYou can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.

Mark is also the host of the radio program Parenting Today’s Teen; heard on over 1,600 radio outlets nationwide. Visit ParentingTodaysTeens.org where you’ll find more parenting resources and find a station near you that carries the daily 60-second features or the 30-minute weekend program. Download the Parenting Today’s Teens App for Apple or Android, it’s a great way to listen on your schedule.

 

 


Step-Family Teen Troubles

Step-parents often experience rejection and anger from the step-child in the teenage years.  After giving so much loving care over the years, it can be more than a parent can bear when the child seemingly turns against them in the teen years.

In our Heartlight residential program, I daily help step-families in the midst of such turmoil.  Our work begins following a plea for help, similar to the note I received today…

“My husband and I have been married since my daughter was two years old.  Her biological father has had very little to do with her.  My daughter constantly argues with her step-father and will not stop.  He sometimes responds by becoming angry.  I simply cannot handle this any longer. “

Step-parents can take it very personally when a step-child seemingly rejects them.  It’s hard for them to understand how a child they helped raise could so suddenly become hateful, mean, and angry.

So, let me try to briefly explain how this can happen with step-children and even with adopted children.

The most simplistic way to explain this complicated issue is through my own love of a certain kind of candy, Peanut M&M’s.  Whenever and wherever I travel or speak, I always like to have Peanut M&M’s nearby. Sometimes I’ve run into a situation, however, when a similar candy, Skittles, are the only thing available. They are similar in appearance, but they aren’t the same.  In fact, they actually only serve to remind me of what I could be enjoying with Peanut M&M’s.

You may ask, what do Peanut M&M’s have to do with anything?  Well, let’s apply this silly analogy to your step-daughter.  Let’s say she also loves Peanut M&M’s. In fact, they are her favorite candy.  She gotten accustomed to having them nearby.  She loves them and shares them with others, and likes knowing they are always available.  Then, suddenly, her Peanut M&M’s are taken away and replaced with Skittles, another similar candy.

In this analogy, step-parents are like Skittles.  The step-parent is a replacement for something your daughter longs for and loves (her biological parent).  Now, there is nothing wrong with Skittles.  In fact, Skittles are a wonderful candy, just like you are surely a wonderful parent to her.  They are not, however, what she longs for, maybe without even knowing it.

The point is this — it doesn’t matter that you have been a loving parent to her for many years.  She still longs for her missing parent, or her perception of the way things used to be.  She longs for her family to look like other families, or to have both parents together.  She may even incorrectly believe that her life would be happy and free of problems if things hadn’t changed.  And here’s the kicker, every time she sees you, she is reminded of what she no longer has and truly wants down deep — her birth parent.

Key Point . . . Every time she sees you, she is reminded of what she no longer has and truly wants down deep — her birth parent.

You are a breathing, daily reminder of something your teen has lost, and still longs for.  It doesn’t matter that there is nothing wrong with you, or that you might even be a better person and parent than her real parent.  What matters at this stage in her life is what she perceives she’s lost.  In my experience, loss is one of the most potent causes of emotional strife and behavioral problems in the adolescent years.

Mistakes Step-Parents Make

In trying to “fix” the attitudes and behavior of a wayward step-child, I often see parents try to bribe the child into better behavior or mood by giving them things, by letting them do whatever they want, or by looking the other way when they step out of line. However, for the parent, such behavior is out of line and will ultimately lead to deeper issues for the child and the parent.

The goal for any parent, step-parent or not, is simply this: to lead a child to embrace their Maker, to develop civil behavior and to teach the child to survive and thrive in the world. Those standards are not always supported by a parent whose primary goal is to keep their children happy all the time.

The best approach to take is to maintain your proper parental role, recognizing what you can and cannot change for your teenager. For instance, you can’t change her feelings of loss, or the past decisions that affect her today. You can’t change the facts of her current circumstances. You can’t change what may have happened outside of the realm of your control.

It makes no sense to demand a step-child to stop feeling the way she does, or to constantly emphasize all you have done for her. Instead, if things are becoming difficult, find a good counselor to help her work through her loss. Eventually that will change the way she thinks and behaves. I’m not saying it will be easy but taking this approach allows you continue to deal with behavioral issues by enforcing rules and applying consequences, while a counselor deals with the emotional issues.

Even though your teen may be going through some internal issues, she should not be allowed to step over boundaries of respect and break your household rules. Boundaries in step-families can actually encourage openness, but in a respectful and self-controlled way.

Step-parents should acknowledge the fact that their teen is dealing with a sense of loss or abandonment, but that shouldn’t be a reason for backing off their parental role or becoming a whipping post. Letting the step-child know that she doesn’t have the freedom to just dump on you whenever she feels like it, and that you don’t have to answer every criticism she throws your way, defines your parental authority. And, letting her know you understand why she may be feeling angry will go a long way toward building respect between the two of you.

Take Heart

If you are in the midst of such a turmoil, take heart. Your step-child’s feelings of loss will not go on forever. The adolescent usually outgrows the inner turmoil in a few years, and can get past it even quicker if it is dealt with more directly with the help of a good counselor. But also remember this… parents who stick to their parental role and continue to demand mutual respect in the home usually come out with a stronger relationship with the child on the other side than do parents who give in and try to appease the child. And the child is more stable and more mature for it.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a residential counseling center for struggling teens located in Longview, Texas.  He has been married to his wife, Jan, for 40 years, has two kids, and four grandkids.  He lives in Longview, Texas, with the Heartlight staff, 60 high school kids, 25 horses, his dog, Stitch, two llamas, and a prized donkey named Toy.

His past involvement as a youth pastor, Young Life area director, and living with more than 2,800 teens has prepared Mark to share his insights and wisdom about parenting pre-teens and adolescents. You can find out more about Heartlight at HeartlightMinistries.orgYou can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.

Mark is also the host of the radio program Parenting Today’s Teen; heard on over 1,600 radio outlets nationwide. Visit ParentingTodaysTeens.org where you’ll find more parenting resources and find a station near you that carries the daily 60-second features or the 30-minute weekend program.  Download the Parenting Today’s Teens App for Apple or Android, it’s a great way to listen on your schedule.


Finding the Hidden Messages In Your Teen’s Inappropriate Behavior

When new kids arrive at the Heartlight residential program we have in east Texas, we start to spend quite a bit of time looking for the motives “behind” their behavior, rather than looking at the inappropriate behavior that got them there. There’s not one of our staff that really believes that the behaviors we see are really the true issues in the life of a struggling teen. We all look to the heart of the issue. Change the behavior, and you’ve kept a teen out of trouble. Change their heart, and you’ve changed their life forever.

What does this have to do with your kids? Just this: Our teen’s inappropriate behaviors, whether it’s blatant disrespect, substance abuse, continuous lying, sexual activity, stealing, out-of-control anger, or spiraling depression, are visible landmarks that stick out in our teen’s life. But if we take the time to look underneath these monuments, we will find the true message our teens are trying to convey, but cannot find the words to do so.

All behavior, good or bad, is goal-oriented. A teen doesn’t act up without a reason. There is always a purpose and motivation behind a child’s actions. That means that inappropriate behavior is a visible indicator of an invisible problem. It’s the smoke that signals a hidden fire. It’s the warning light on the dashboard telling us to check our engine. Inappropriate behavior is a teen trying desperately to get help!

Heart Transformation Versus Behavior Modification

I get it. When our precious son or daughter is spinning out of control, our natural impulse is to correct their behavior. We want them to switch from doing wrong to doing right. We want to stop the lying, halt the cheating, curb the anger, and put an end to whatever harmful habit our teen is engaged in.

But if we only address the behavior and not the motivation behind it, we’re not truly helping our kids. It’s like the guy who went to see the doctor, because no matter what he touched on his body, it hurt. “Doc, when I touch my arm, I get this shooting pain. When I touch my leg, same thing. Even when I touch my face, I almost pass out, it hurts so bad. What’s the matter with me?” The doctor took one look and said, “You have a broken finger.”

When something is broken in your child’s life, it will affect everything else. And unless we address a teen’s heart, we’re not addressing the real cause of the problem. Focusing solely on the inappropriate actions is a form of behavior modification, but it is only a temporary Band-Aid. Aim for heart transformation instead. Investigate the reasons why your child is acting out, and address those concerns.

Jessica is a funny, compassionate, and well-spoken student in the Heartlight program. Born with a breathing disorder that made many activities dangerous, Jessica always had to work harder than most kids to stay connected to friends. And as she got older, it seemed to become more and more difficult. Jessica told us that it wasn’t easy to fit in among her school friends, who liked to party, because that just wasn’t her scene. Yet, at the same time, Jessica was finding it hard to relate to her church friends, who seemed to have perfect, sin-free lives, while she did not. As the gap widened between real connections, the lonelier Jessica became. So in order to be close with anyone, and to feel accepted, Jessica would often sneak out of her house at night to meet up with boys and engage in risky sexual activity. “I knew it was wrong,” Jessica confessed. “But those guys made me feel special, wanted, needed. I so badly wanted friends I could relate to, that I settled for boys who really just took advantage of me.

Now, to help Jessica and get her back on the right track, it would be easy to set up strict boundaries and rules, and point out the mistakes of sexual experimentation. But after listening to this sweet, young lady speak, I realized it wasn’t behavior modification that she really needed. She was desperate for connection, and in her immaturity, she was looking for it in all the wrong places. So if we take time to affirm her, set up friends who care about her, involve her in social circles with people she can relate to, those inappropriate behaviors will no longer have the same pull on her life. By addressing her heart, we’ve solved the problems with her behavior.

How to Find the Hidden Message

Now the question on the floor is, “Okay Mark, I need to look past the behavior to see what my son or daughter is really trying to say. But how can I possibly decode those hidden messages?

First, to hear a teen’s heart, we need to actively listen. That might mean withholding advice, judgment or comments for a while. I have found that most teens know when their actions are out of line. They don’t need mom and dad pointing that out. So instead of rehashing the mistakes, ask questions and sit back and listen. “What got you so angry?” or “How did that drug make you feel?” or “What made you go to that website?” These types of probing questions can peel back the layers of inappropriate behavior and give you insight into your child’s heart. Of course, in the moment, your teen may reply with the customary “I don’t know.” But don’t let their first answer stop you. In a gentle, loving and firm way, keep asking the questions that help you find the reason behind the behavior.

Second, don’t wait to address the behavior itself. You can search for the motive behind the actions at the same time that you are dealing with the action itself. While you’re taking away the car keys, you can say, “I don’t want to take the car privileges away from you again. So let’s talk about why this happened and how we can keep it from happening in the future.” The longer you wait to speak to the behavior, the harder it will be to deal with it correctly. By confronting the behavior, you’re also letting your teen know that, while you do care about the reasons behind those actions, you love them enough not to sweep the inappropriate behavior under the rug.

Lastly, be open to what God wants to teach you through your child’s behavior. Often, it’s the times of struggle, or hardships, or conflict that strengthen our relationships and deepen our character. I Peter 1:6 says, “Though for a little while you may have to suffer grief in all kinds of trial… these have come so that the genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold—may result in the praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.”

Look behind the trials of parenting a teen to see the faith, grace and hope God is building into your life. Underneath all that inappropriate behavior you may find a map to the eternal treasures of peace, grace, and hope God has in store for both you and your teen.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a residential counseling center for struggling teens located in Longview, Texas.  He has been married to his wife, Jan, for 40 years, has two kids, and four grandkids.  He lives in Longview, Texas, with the Heartlight staff, 60 high school kids, 25 horses, his dog, Stitch, two llamas, and a prized donkey named Toy.

His past involvement as a youth pastor, Young Life area director, and living with more than 2,800 teens has prepared Mark to share his insights and wisdom about parenting pre-teens and adolescents. You can find out more about Heartlight at HeartlightMinistries.orgYou can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.

Mark is also the host of the radio program Parenting Today’s Teen; heard on over 1,600 radio outlets nationwide. Visit ParentingTodaysTeens.org where you’ll find more parenting resources and find a station near you that carries the daily 60-second features or the 30-minute weekend program. Download the Parenting Today’s Teens App for Apple or Android, it’s a great way to listen on your schedule.