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?
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.
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.
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.org. You 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.