How to Talk to Kids about ‘Mean Girl’ Social Aggression

Perhaps, like me, you remember mean girl behavior being relegated to middle school or high school. Being ostracized, gossiped about, teased, berated or made to feel inferior. I certainly was a victim of it. Perhaps you were too. And it was terrible. But there seems to have been an age-compression of sorts—where the ugly behavior we once saw in teens, is now happening in younger grades- where competition and social humiliation is on the rise. What we once discussed regarding queen bees and cliques in 5th and 6th grade is now the buzz of 1st and second graders. It can no longer be ignored- we must address this right now.

Special Guest: Katie Hurley

Katie Hurley, LCSW, has been on our show before in a popular episode on stress and children- and she is back to talk about young girls and relational aggression in the elementary school years. Katie is a child and adolescent psychotherapist, parenting expert, and writer. She is the founder of “Girls Can!” empowerment groups for girls between ages 5-11. Hurley is the author of The Happy Kid Handbook and the forthcoming No More Mean Girls, and her work can be found in The Washington Post, PBS Parents, and US News and World Report, among other places. She practices psychotherapy in the South Bay area of Los Angeles and earned her BA in psychology and women’s studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She splits her time between California and Connecticut with her husband and two children.

The podcast provides:

  • Why relational aggression can’t be boiled down to “girl drama” and the problem that creates.
  • What is changing in childhood to make room for relational aggression in younger years.
  • Tips to help girls be more assertive
  • Tips to curb perfectionism that is linked to a dip in self esteem
  • Positive risks girls can take to show courage
  • Rules girls should be thinking through as they are online more and accessing friends online
  • Script: How to talk to a girl who feels she is a victim of mean girl behavior
  • How “mean girls” can change into kind girls and how “victims” can change into “take-charge girls.
  • Top tips and resources from Katie around relational aggression.

Important Messages:

  • Girl drama does not need to be part of “growing up girl.”
  • This “mean girl” behavior usually comes from poor social skills, low self esteem and/or anxiety.
  • When we were little, teachers had the time and space to deal with exclusivity or relational aggression behavior.
  • Lives are more scripted these days- adults leading and guided- so they aren’t learning more organically how to relate to other girls.
  • Girls are exhausted! There are so many scheduled activities. Is there time for sleep? De-stressing? Reading? Playing?
  • Competition is girls’ sports is toxic.
  • Slow down! Let’s help girls take the time to think about what they really love to do and who they love to spend time with!
  • Watch media with your girls- pause the TV and discuss the “girl drama” you see.
  • Teach girls to say “no” and set healthy boundaries. They’ve been socialized to NOT say no.
  • Have a debate night so that kids can learn how to use their voice.
  • Play shifts with age but kids (and adults) play.
  • Use media to talk about behavior. When they can pick behavior apart on the screen, they can learn to amplify their voices and stand a little taller.
  • Use debate, in a fun way, to get your girls to be more assertive.
  • We sometimes dismiss our girl’s feelings out of fear and nervousness.
  • Body image can have a profound effect on self esteem
  • Take a deep breath and ask questions about what is contributing to a girl feeling the way she does.
  • Comparisons happen all the time. Talk honestly with your girls- ask why they are feeling as they do.
  • Nobody wants to have these conversations but we have to have them!
  • Try practicing conversations in the mirror.
  • There are always do-overs! Mistakes are made- and as parents, we can revisit.
  • Perfectionism is a big problem right now for kids. We have to convey that there is no way to be perfect.
  • Find outlets for girls that are healthy but not competitive.
  • Give girls role models so that they understand the missteps and mistakes we make along the way.
  • Talk to girls younger- they need these discussions earlier.
  • Slow down. Be quiet for a few minutes. Think through our thoughts first without overreacting.
  • Listen without strategizing. Empathize.
  • Ask; what will make you feel better at school? Who else is a good touchstone for you at school?
  • Make a friendship map. Help your daughter map out her friendships so she sees that there is more than just one person in the world.
  • It’s hard to empathize when you think your kid is doing something atrocious but we have to steer the conversation towards empathy. Our gut instinct is to either deny it or to consequence but these don’t work. Sometimes it’s got to be our daughters.
  • Model empathy and how we handle rough spots.
  • Spend more one-on-one time with girls.

Notable Quotables:

  • “Girl drama does not need to be part of ‘growing up girl.’ But if we continue to look the other way and say ‘it’s a rite of passage,’ it will continue.
  • “We don’t need to prepare our girls for ‘mean girl behavior,’ we can help our girls become the change agents who stop it from happening.”
  • “Assertiveness training for girls is so important that I can’t highlight that enough. Girls need to learn how to say no, how to stand up straight, look people in the eye and use an assertive voice that’s not overpowering but can be heard and are clear. These are all things that girls need to learn.”
  • “Sometimes we accidently dismiss our daughter’s feelings. They are saying they don’t think they look right or they don’t look like their friends and their parents say, ‘no you’re beautiful! You’re perfect just as you are!” While these are nice platitudes, they don’t do anything for how the girls are feeling. Their bodies are changing everyday. And we tell our girls, ‘don’t make comparisons!” But that doesn’t stop them from making those comparisons or wondering how they stack up—that’s part of growing up. Talk honestly with kids. Don’t be afraid. Ask them, why do you feel this way?”
  • “Perfectionism is a big problem for girls right now. But the world is better when you aren’t trying to be some version of perfect. I like to tell girls, ‘we can strive for excellence, we can strive for success, but we have to be willing to fall short and stumble along the way because nobody gets from A to Z without hitting a single obstacle.’”
  • “The problem with all this toxic competition between girls right now is that someone always has to be the best. And if there’s a best then there’s a worst. And who wants to be the worst?”
  • “There’s a lot of pressure on girls right now. It’s really no wonder girls are struggling with perfectionism. They are hearing it on the field. They’re hearing it at school. They’re getting it somewhere at home. They’re comparing themselves to their siblings or their best friends or their cousins. Parents want their kids to be successful. So it’s really not that off the mark that so many girls are struggling with perfectionism.”
  • “We’ve got to teach girls that everyday is a new day to start again. My father always used to say that the thing he liked best about sunsets is if you had the perfect day, it was a beautiful way to end it with the colors dripping from the sky. But if it was a lousy day, it was a beautiful way to end it with the colors dripping from the sky because you knew you got another shot the next day. We need to say these things to our girls.”
  • “If a girl comes home to tell you about relational aggression, slow down your own responses. Be ok with sitting in silence. It’s better to be quiet and think through your responses than to overreact quickly and in the moment. Our girls take their cues from us.”
  • “When girls are going through relational aggression, they are in survival mode at school when they’re away from you. You are their lighthouse. They are waiting for that beam of light to wash over them and make them feel better. So, we can’t panic! We have to listen.”
  • “The first step when your child comes to tell you about relational aggression is to make sure she knows she’s not alone.”
  • “If we want kids to shift their thinking and connect better with other kids, we have to get down and dirty with them and talk about what’s beneath the behavior. Every behavior is a form of communication—even targeting other kids.”
  • “Just because your girl is doing unkind things or saying unkind things right now doesn’t mean that she’s not a good person. It means she is going through something and she doesn’t know how to communicate in a better way.
  • “Between the ages of 9 and 12 years old is make it or break it for self esteem. Our girls are either going to fly or they’re going to tank. Spend one-on-one time with your girls and you will help them fly if you just give them your time.”