Editor’s Note: Kelly Wallace is CNN’s digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. She is a mom of two girls. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.
"Mean girl" behavior begins as young as elementary school, according to experts
Mothers have to "model being allies to other women," one author says
Teaching empathy is a key way to prevent raising a mean girl, parents said
Mean girls often have low self-esteem and/or are seeking approval
I am one of the lucky ones. I didn’t meet my first “mean girl” until freshman year of college.
Before I met her – let’s call her “Z” – I lived life assuming that people would for the most part treat me the way I treated them. Oh, how wrong I was.
Z was close to my freshman roommate, who was the opposite of a mean girl, but whenever Z was around, it was clear that a) she had no time for me and b) I was not welcome in anything she was doing.
To this day, whenever I think of mean girls, I think back to Z and wonder what led her to be so miserable to me and probably other girls, too.
I find myself thinking about that question a lot lately as I watch my daughters, now 6 and 8, negotiate female friendships. Sadly, I have already seen mean girl qualities in some girls in their peer group, and my kids are still years away from middle school!
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Educational psychologist Lori Day says the problem is growing worse with the increasing power of the Internet and today’s hyperfeminine girl culture, so we’re seeing more mean girls today and at younger ages.
Here’s where we as parents need to slam on the brakes. If the problem is getting worse and it’s starting with girls as young as elementary school, what can we do about it? How can we avoid raising mean girls?
Day, who is out with the powerful new book “Her Next Chapter: How Mother-Daughter Book Clubs Can Help Girls Navigate Malicious Media, Risky Relationships, Girl Gossip and So Much More,” says mothers really have to “model being allies to other women.”
“When girls see their mother gossiping with a female friend about another female friend, putting down someone because of how they look or their weight … it’s modeling the wrong thing for girls,” she said.
She recommends being explicit with young girls about this philosophy. “You can say, ‘I really try not to tear other women down. I try to build them up,’ ” said Day, who wrote the book along with her recent college graduate daughter and devoted an entire chapter to dealing with mean girls.
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Louise Sattler, a school psychologist, sign language educator and mom of two grown children in Los Angeles, knows all too well about mean girls. When she was in high school, one girl, we’ll call her “C,” seemed to have it out for her.
Thirty years later, at her high school reunion, C continued to be a bully, even requesting that Sattler not sit at her table. (Sattler, you’ll be happy to know, did not back down. She planted her purse and her body down at that table, and C stormed off.)
“I always felt kind of sorry for her, frankly, because I knew she didn’t come from a very happy household,” she said.
Girls like C are always looking for something better and for recognition and validation, she added. “And so I think the way to combat mean girls is to first just validate your daughter. They may not be the cheerleader. They may not grow up to be the smartest. They may be a little chunky, but that’s OK.”
Mean girls often have a low self-esteem and “a feeling of mistrust and negative competition with other girls,” said Anea Bogue, an author, educator and self-esteem expert who focuses her energies on helping girls.
People who truly feel good about themselves don’t expend a ton of energy trying to knock others down, said Bogue, author of “9 Ways We’re Screwing Up Our Girls and How We Can Stop.”
“The most important thing we can do as parents to avoid raising a mean girl is instill self-value and challenge status quo messages of female inferiority and mistrust between women, a norm girls learn about from the time they are little from a variety of sources, including fairy tales,” said the mom of two girls, who recently launched an anti-bullying program in the U.S. and Hong Kong called Be a REALgirl, not a MEANgirl.
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Annette Lanteri, a mom of two girls in Bayport, New York, switched schools for her elder daughter in part because of the way she was being treated by some mean girls.
The key in stopping this behavior, she says is teaching children the concept of empathy. “Having the ability to step into someone’s shoes and use that information when you interact with people is an amazing tool,” Lanteri said. “A girl with that empathizes with others, especially her peers, (and) will never become a mean girl.”
What I also heard from the many parents I spoke with is that the golden rule that we all grew up with – treat others as you would want them to treat you – is perhaps even more important today.
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Michelle Staruiala has been passing that philosophy down to her three kids, including her 13-year-old daughter, their entire lives.
It works, she said. Her daughter hasn’t had issues with mean girls, has been known to stand up for friends who are being bullied and feels guilty if she ever treats someone the wrong way.
“To this day, my daughter will say, ‘Mom, I shouldn’t have said that. I feel bad I said this about my friend,’ ” said Staruiala, of Saskatchewan.
Then again, maybe we’re going about this mean girl policing all wrong.
Amy MacClain, lead facilitator and program developer for Soul Shoppe, an interactive program focusing on helping schools and students combat bullying, says we should banish the term entirely.
Saddling a kid with the mean girl tag means judging her in the same way she may be judging others, said MacClain, who is also the founder of a program that helps parents bully-proof their kids.
“If you turn and go, ‘She’s a mean girl. You better go and play with someone else,’ you’re teaching your child not to deal with the problem, not to see what might be the cause and not to take care of themselves.”
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Truly stopping mean girl behavior demands a lot of parental introspection. After all, what parent would want to admit their daughter is one?
“Part of it is we’re just so blamed as parents … for the normal things that kids can do. That’s why we don’t want to take any responsibility,” said MacClain, who has an 11-year-son.
But denial isn’t going to help anyone, parents and parenting experts say, so the best thing any mom of a mean girl can do is start validating her daughter and connecting with her, even on the playground.
“When there are girls and they’re being mean to one another, get involved,” MacClain said. “Go to the park where they play and jump into that play and lead it for a little while so that all the girls feel safer and they’re having fun so you’re not directing it. You’re just jumping in and leading fun.”
How can you prevent a child from turning into a mean girl? Share your thoughts in the comments or tell Kelly Wallace on Twitter or CNN Living on Facebook.