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“Mom, all year long my BFF has been talking about her birthday party,” my then-fourth-grade daughter whimpered, fighting back tears. “Now she tells me her party’s been cancelled, but the other girls are talking about it so I know it’s still on.”
Though we almost avoided the drama, the inevitable happened: Just a month before summer, my daughter’s best friend turned on her. She was crushed.
Girl drama has always been around, but from where I stand, it seems mean girls are meaner than ever. While tears and jeers can’t always be avoided, there are steps parents can take to put an anti-bullying plan in place.
Step 1: Pay Attention and Listen
Anti-bullying specialist and award-winning author Nancy Rue says the most important thing parents can do is to take their daughters concerns seriously. “When your child comes home and tells you she is being bullied, avoid playing it down by saying she will outgrow it,” says Rue. With the stigma attached to bullying, kids often only tell half the story. Parents have to look closely for signs of trouble. “Pay attention when birthday party invitations slow to a halt, grades drop, or if a normally outgoing child is suddenly at home more than usual.”
Germantown mom Carrie Hencyk saw the signs in her then 9-year-old daughter, Emma, early on, when her grades began dropping. “She wouldn’t write her homework down because the girls were in their huddle making fun of her, telling her ‘You can’t sit with us.’” Hencyk encouraged her daughter to keep her focus on school. “I told my honor student daughter, ‘Mean girls don’t care about their grades, but let’s keep caring about yours.’”
Parents can also focus on extracurricular activities to help kids shine outside of school, while at the same time assuring them it’s not their responsibility to avoid getting bullied. “Mean girls can change how kids view themselves; consequently, kids need reminders that they have a life outside of school,” says Rue. Untapped talent may be discovered in art class, club teams, or community theater.
Step 2: Reassure and Take Back Power
Once kids convey the problem, reassurance from parents should come in regular doses and parents should offer help. “Stay calm and assure your child you can fix it, because you can,” says Rue. Give your daughter lots of reminders that this is not about her, but the bully. “This is my mantra with kids, parents, and teachers: Show victims how to take back the power to be themselves because that is what a bully is trying to take from them: allowing them to be who they are.”
Along with reassurance, parents should help kids understand that there is no satisfying a mean girl — the victim will always be too fat or thin, too smart or dumb, too talented or too clumsy. “Whatever is different from the bully is the target,” says Rue, “and parents must convey to their kids that they are going to help them take back the power to be who they are, go where they want, and do what they need to do.”
Hencyk agrees. “For my daughter, at first it was ‘You can’t sit with us’ and then ‘You’re eating lunch? It’s going to make you fat!’ Then it was the shoes she had saved money for yet wore only once because the girls made fun of her.” With each new school year, the harassment continued, escalating into mean posts put anonymously on social websites, a favorite venue of bullies.
Because of her own experience with both sides of the mean-girl scene, Hencyk knew a little about how to guide her daughter. “In grade school, I was a mean girl,” says Hencyk, who apologizes even today when she happens to encounter one of her former targets. “I was unhappy in my home situation so my message was ‘I am not going to like you if you don’t wear a certain shoe or do this or that.’” In high school, however, the tables turned. “The roles were reversed and I was the one spending lunch alone, unable to eat, going outside, to the bathroom, anywhere so they wouldn’t see me cry.”
Step 3: Take Action
So what’s the best response when confronted with a mean girl? “Don’t give bullies the satisfaction of an emotional response, whether it is tears or anger,” says Rue, adding that one effective way to equip kids is to give them one-liners to say and walk away. “‘I thought you were better than that,’ is one thing your child can say, especially to a friend who has turned on them.” One-liners are significant because ignoring is not going to make the problem go away. A bully will keep on until she gets a reaction.
“The less you say, the better,” says Hencyk. “Save the tears and cry outside of their vision.” For Hencyk and her daughter, adding humor to the situation also helped. “I shared with my daughter that I use to visualize pulling up to the drive-through in my luxury car and the mean girl handing me my order, saying, ‘You want fries with that?’ She thought that was great!”
Again, parents should tune into their kids, and when it is time to take the next step, do it. “Kids may be reluctant to involve another adult, but if your child expresses feelings of physical danger or depression, they need someone to act,” says Rue. The difference between tattling and reporting is simple. “Tattling is getting someone into trouble; reporting is keeping someone out of trouble, even if it is yourself,” says Rue.
Sometimes one-liners are ineffective and teachers or counselors don’t come through. This was indeed the case for Hencyk, who tried going through the proper channels at school, taking her daughter to a therapist, and even confronting the parents herself. The bullying continued, however, and she saw no other option but to remove her daughter from the situation altogether by sending her to live with her dad in another state.
“I knew for her sake I had to make a radical change,” says Hencyk, who Skypes with her daughter every night. “It was the ultimate sacrifice but she has friends, she is happy, and she’s out of the situation.”
A year has passed since the mean girl incident my own daughter encountered. Thankfully, new friendships have bloomed and my daughter only sees her former BFF on the playground. “I’m so glad I’m not part of her posse this year,” she confided in me recently, adding she is relieved to be out of the drama. And how do I feel about having a ‘tween daughter entering middle school, happy to be drama-free? In my book, she gets an “A” in people smarts.
Read More: Mean Girl Make-Overs
By Nicole Yasinsky
There are so many elements of what creates and feeds the mean girl culture. Here are some books to help you and your family get through this phenomenon at any stage.
It can be hard to remember how all of this happens, as we adults have (hopefully) escaped the mean girl epidemic. Educate yourself to know how to talk to your girls and get as much information as you can to help them through the tough times.
- Queen Bees & Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and the New Realities of Girl World by Rosalind Wiseman
- Little Girls Can Be Mean: Four Steps to Bully-Proof Girls in the Early Grades by Michelle Anthony
- Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression of Girls by Rachel Simmons
For Mean Girls
Sometimes, the mean girl doesn’t know how much her actions hurt the offended parties, and it can take a step into someone else’s shoes to make them think twice. Empathy is a crucial key to stopping all sorts of harmful behaviors —something many adults could stand to read up on, too!
- Wonder by R. J. Palacio
- Confessions of a Former Bully by Trudy Ludwig
- Mean Girl Makeover fiction series by Nancy Rue: So Not Okay, You Can’t Sit With Us, and Sorry, I’m Not Sorry
For Younger Girls
The Mean Girl culture isn’t exclusive to older girls — sometimes it pops up before you were expecting it. These picture books use humor and fun illustrations to confront the issues and to embrace differences and individuality.
- Marlene, Marlene, the Queen of Mean by Jane Lynch and Lara Embry
- Hooway for Wodney Wat by Helen Lester
- Berenstain Bears and the Trouble with Friends by Stan and Jan Berenstain
- Stand Tall, Molly Lou Melon by Patty Lovell
- Odd Velvet by Mary E. Whitcomb
For the Innocent Bystander
It is easy for a girl to stand by and do nothing when her friends are being bullied. Encouraging your child to stand up for what is right is a major step in empowering them to change this epidemic.
- Blubber by Judy Blume
- American Girl: Stand Up for Yourself and Your Friends by Patty Kelley Criswell
There are so many books out there that address the mean girl culture — here are a few more to add to your list to spark conversations about girls and their friends.
- The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen
- The Girls by Amy Goldman Koss
- The Clique series by Lisi Harrison
- Beacon Street Girls: Just Kidding by Annie Bryant
- Allie Finkle’s Rules for Girls: The New Girl by Meg Cabot
- Dork Diaries series by Rachel Renee Russell
— Freelance writer Nicole Yasinsky is marketing manager for The Booksellers at Laurelwood. She headed the children’s department there for 13 years.