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Ask an Expert: Middle school and mean girls.

Q. My daughter is wrapping up her second year of middle school. I’ve noticed there are some mean girls in her world now – even in her group. My main question is how much should I get involved in their petty little disputes? Should I share my opinion with my daughter? (i.e., “She must have really low self esteem to be putting others down…I’d ignore her.”) A few weeks ago, one of the girls in my daughter’s group told everyone that another girl was being kicked out of their lunch group because no one liked her. This resulted in the girl crying for hours at school. My daughter was very upset and told both the victim and the mean girl that no one felt that way. I was wondering if I should call the offending girl’s mom to discuss what’s happening, or tell a teacher or counselor?

A. In the grocery store just the other day, I overheard several women in a conversation that sounded very similar to the one presented in this question, though they were not talking about their kids. I don’t know the back story, don’t know what provoked this discussion or who the actual players were. What I do know is that no matter how tall we become, this is not something that we all grow out of. More importantly, and to speak directly to this question, this is not something, in my mind, that we learn to “work out.”

Our instinct, which you’ve highlighted here, and with which I agree, is to see the “mean girl” as someone who is not confident, who might have low self-esteem and who needs to tear others down in order to feel OK. This is a common reaction, and one that is useful in encouraging the victims to not internalize the cruelty of others. This insight is typically not far from the truth (especially, but not exclusively with kids) but it can also encourage more separation, more isolation, and less understanding.

How parents and children can get involved

I would get involved, and I’d start here with my own kid. I’d encourage her to think about the times when her thoughts have been judgments and not questions, negative instead of soft and ask her why this was so. Mark Doty, contemporary American poet and memoirist wrote: “We love disasters that have nothing to do with us.” When we feel like baby disasters, we turn on the news – someone else’s – to find peace. This default technique keeps us from walking into the discomfort of growth. So often we find ourselves in these spaces when we are hurt, afraid, feeling insecure – and the last thing we need is to be left alone, ignored, or explained away in some sort of rationalization.

What we need is to learn to engage in these spaces and enlist others around us to help us through. This being said, it’s also important for your daughter to create boundaries, to know when a friendship is not serving her and to be able to speak openly and directly about her feelings and her needs.

Another way to get involved is to encourage this outside of school, even talk to other parents – including the parents of the “bully” – about how to support healthy friendships and about how to help your kids learn how to engage in this type of communication. In understanding others, in listening, and in working things out.

Including teachers in the plan

One strategy that you might request from your daughter’s teacher (ideally a home room teacher, as counselors are increasingly swamped these days), and one that I’ve used over the years, is weekly chats. These can be specific to issues that are salient in the classroom or general issues that are teacher or student-generated. This type of forum also requires everyone’s participation and is less threatening than a one-on-one conversation with a “troublemaker.”

One prompt that I’ve used over and over again asks students to share “what’s going well and what’s not” in their lives. Oftentimes, a lot comes from just this simple check-in. It’s a space to really gauge how everyone is doing – outside of the curriculum, outside of homework, outside of mandated standards. It also gives other students a chance to hear and to understand their classmates – and for students to understand themselves. Chances are, the “mean girl” doesn’t even know where all of this is coming from, as we are rarely taught to check in with ourselves.

Meanness can start early

A friend of mine recently shared a similar story about the social dynamics of pre-K and her 4-year-old daughter, Eloise. “You’re not my friend” became the mantra after a lost race or a playground mishap. One day, Eloise came home with a picture that she had drawn; in it were several girls, one with big black X through her face. Eloise explained that this was Karla and that she was X-ed out because “we don’t like her.” My friend interrupted her, reminding her that this isn’t the way to talk about anyone, especially her friends. Almost instantly, Eloise started sobbing and crawled into her mother’s lap.

We don’t enjoy being mean. Sometimes we don’t understand why we are or haven’t thought through how our actions are affecting others – or how we are being affected. The sooner we can understand the root of our own feelings, the sooner we can try to understand the actions of others. Talk through our little disasters instead of creating new ones.

Editor’s note: EdNews Parent expert Finessa Ferrell, director of the Denver-based National Center for School Engagement, suggests reading Odd Girl Out by Rachel Simmons and Queen Bees and Wannabe’s: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence by Rosalind Wiseman. She also suggests consulting The Ophelia Project.

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