When Mean Girls Attack

I have been struggling to write this article all week. Not because I don’t have a great deal to say, because trust me, I do. But I’ve found that it’s kind of hard to write when my frustration is such that every time I try to type, I just end up mashing the keyboard. I wish I could say that I was angry about something that had happened to me personally, but sadly, no. My frustration comes from the heartbreak of watching my daughter in her ongoing battle against that age-old adolescent phenomenon known as “mean girls.”

Anyone who has ever lived on this planet knows what I’m talking about. And let’s kick things off by saying that mean girls are not restricted by gender. “Mean boys” are out there, too. In fact, “mean kids” would be the simplest way to talk about this. But while the damage is heart-wrenching on both sides of the gender divide, today, I’m going to get all kinds of personal and talk about girls.

My daughter limped her way through the middle school years as, naturally, middle school brought cataclysmic shifts in social spheres. Evolutionary drifts pulled elementary school friends apart and new dynamics formed. But, yeah, middle school. Middle school is the unspoken 10th layer of hell in Dante’s Inferno. I can only assume it got cut in final edits because even Dante realized that some things were too gruesome for polite society.

As such, we looked towards high school as a fresh start. We failed to take into account that some people don’t grow, they just stagnate deeper into their own misery. And so, as you might assume, the mean girls of middle school became the mean girls of high school.

There’s one particular group of girls with whom my daughter has been friends with for years—even though the relationship has been tenuous at best. I’m not a fan. But hey, if my kids are happy, I’m happy. And so I regularly open my house, host sleepovers, buy snacks, turn up my local NPR station in the car to drown out the tedious gossip and giggling, and overall, try to be a fun mom (a feat which I achieve by always having Doritos and Oreos in the pantry).

I’ve kept a close eye on this relationship over the years, as more than once, my daughter has been the target of temporary exclusion by the group-at-large. Yet, despite their tendency to blow hot and cold and unceremoniously oust members of the group for reasons that only the addled female teenage brain can comprehend, my daughter has remained loyal to these girls. However, over the past couple of weeks, the winds shifted and we hit the mother lode of mean girl drama.

Without getting into details, suffice it to say that some stuff went down and my daughter became the scapegoat. Now, after two weeks of being ostracized, ignored, and, it would appear, openly replaced by someone who was once a good friend of my daughter’s but never allowed in “the group” by the other girls, my daughter is crushed…as in tears and angst and sad-text-messages-to-her-mom-throughout-the-day kind of crushed. And I’m fighting the urge to go MAMA BEAR (yes, in all caps) on the whole world. I know that’s not the answer. But, I’m not gonna lie—I really, really want to.

However, the purpose of this article is not to vent about mean girls. Rather it’s to talk mom-to-mom (and dads, too, if you’re reading) about how we handle our children when they are on the receiving end of social ostracism. And I know I’m not alone in this.

Let me start by saying that I know watching your child suffer at the hands of other kids is one of the most painful things you’ll ever experience. Not only does it take us back to our own adolescent years—“an experience I would like to repeat” said NO ONE EVER—but, it brings out every maternal instinct, in every cell, in every part of our bodies. Yet, like all things in life, there are right ways and wrong ways to handle it.

And so today, I’m going to offer a few tried and true lessons I’ve learned along the way. (And also I’ve read every article and book ever written in the history of mankind with regards to this topic. So there’s that.)

Practice Empathy.
You are a grown up. You have perspective your child doesn’t. You can sit back and think of witty, strong, mature statements that you would have offered the mean girls back in your day. You know that spending time and energy on people who are petty and unkind is not productive. Your child has none of this power at her disposal. She can only see that no one loves her and she is destined for a life of loneliness and solitude. Right now, she’s picturing herself as the homeless orphan staring through the foggy restaurant window as all of the pretty, popular girls sit inside giggling and pointing at her. This is not the case. But so what. Let her know that her feelings and her pain are real…and that it absolutely, 110% sucks. Because it does. Like BIG TIME. Let her cry. Hug her. And tell her how much you love her. It’s that simple.

Teach Empathy.
Because I’m, like, so adult and amazing and perceptive (we’ll talk about my personal life some other day), I see the mean girls very differently than my daughter does. Don’t get me wrong, right now, I’m angry at them and I’m deeply hurt for my daughter’s sake. But I also know how to regulate those emotions.

When I look at these girls, I see a lot of insecurity. I see desperation. I see girls who don’t know who they are. I see children who are battling their own nameless demons. But right now, my daughter can only see the rejection. My job is to teach her empathy and compassion. It won’t change the situation, but it will change her understanding and attitude. When the mean girls attack, talk to your daughter about the girls themselves—not just about what they did, but about who they are. Openly discuss the struggles that they might be facing and help shed light on the root causes of their behavior. Remind your daughter that she is not the only one (as is most likely) to have been the target, so it really and truly is not her fault alone. And remind her that we all have struggles, but that it’s how we choose to deal with them that sets us apart.

Talk to your daughter about who she is.
As I sat with a crying teenager the other night, I asked her some questions—and I asked her to be very, very honest, knowing that she would not receive judgment from me. I asked her if she was kind. I asked her if she was loyal. I asked her if she was selfish. But most importantly, I asked her how she would respond if the tables had been turned and someone else had been made the scapegoat. I didn’t just assume the answers, because I, of course, am biased. Her answers matched my assumptions, for the most part. But I listened carefully because, in her answers, she gave me a lot of information. She provided ways in which I could help strengthen the traits that I most want to see, not only in her but in all of my children. But most importantly, I was able to remind her that she was ok. By acknowledging the things in herself that are admirable, she was able to feel a greater sense of worth.

Talk about the importance of true friendship.
Friends are very different from acquaintances. And no matter how many people you know or are “friendly” with, true, deep friendships are almost always fewer in number than you realize. Again, communication is key here. Ask your daughter to talk about the people that she feels the most relaxed around. Who are the people that she feels she can just “be herself” with? The irony is that, in the high-pressure social strata of high school, these people may not be the people that she is actually trying to hang out with the most. So maybe this is the time to rethink some things. Feeling good about ourselves is critical to happiness. And happiness doesn’t always look the way it should. Find out who makes your daughter feel good about herself (in a healthy way, of course) and proactively support interaction with those people. She might just find that she “belongs” somewhere other than where she’s been looking.

Be there.
I am busy. I don’t even text my own friends. And yet, I’ve been getting almost non-stop texts from my daughter for the past two weeks. It doesn’t matter where I am or what I’m doing, I always stop to answer. Not because I LIKE mean girl drama, but for the exact opposite reason. I hate it. And my daughter needs to know that she has a safe place—a place to escape where she is loved, accepted, and admired. It may not be cool to hear all of that from your mom or dad when you’re a teenager, but it matters. As adults, how many of us have turned back to our parents, day in and day out, to seek that same love and acceptance? And how many times, even as adults, has that been the thing that has gotten us through? Be that mom or dad now. She needs you. So just be there—no matter what.

Don’t try to fix it.
I have been sitting here for the last week with unsent drafts in my email, my finger on the “call” button, and my heart about to explode. I want SO BADLY to get involved. See here’s the thing. I have cell phone numbers for most of these girls…and I have their parents’ numbers and emails. But it’s not going to help. In fact, it will only create more drama. Try to stay out of it unless your child or another child has engaged in risky behavior. In this case, other parents always need to know. But barring that, here’s where parenting teenagers get hard.

It’s one thing to call a parent in first grade and suggest that perhaps their child shouldn’t be telling all the other kids on the playground where babies come from. It’s another thing altogether to get involved in teen drama. Not only do you, yourself, get involved in the drama and usually exacerbate it, not to mention experience your own high school PTSD, but you rob your child of the opportunity to figure things out. These are formative years. High school is often the training ground for adulthood. Kids need to figure out how to navigate this space for themselves. However, you are there to guide them. Unlike the lifetime of adulting that awaits them, they are under your umbrella right now. Encourage them to ask advice and be open. But let them figure it out. They will surprise you. Guaranteed.

Tell your own stories or find other meaningful people in their lives who can relate.
Misery loves company. Simple fact. Chances are, you have a few notches on your belt when it comes to mean girls. Tell her your own stories. You want to, of course, make sure that what you have to say is appropriate. But she needs to know that she’s not alone. Or maybe you were the most popular girls in school and simply can’t relate. In that case, think of people you know who might have similar stories. If those people are within reach, then reach out and set up a conversation. Your daughter will find infinite solace in the knowledge that she’s not the first person to go through this. But more importantly, she will have tangible evidence that there is life beyond the mean girls and that she can, and will, heal.

Make sure she has healthy ways of coping.
We have all read horror stories on the effects of bullying—which is really all the mean girl phenomena is. And they don’t always have a happy ending. Make sure that your daughter has activities or spaces in which she can focus her energies in a positive way. For my daughter, it’s yoga. She also signed up for the high school musical, an activity that she’s never shown interest in before, but one in which she has an untapped source of friendship far from the influence of her former “group.” Barring all else, she and I cuddle up on the couch and watch a movie. Just make sure that she is not seeking harmful ways of managing her stress.

Do a little role-playing.
Ok, so remember earlier when I talked about how, as adults, we have tons of great responses to the mean girls? This is where we get to pull out all of those mature responses. Now please note that I am NOT referring to the moments when you lay awake in bed remembering that time in 1993 when [insert your own mean girl here] said something nasty and now, in 2018, you have the perfect comeback. Rather, I am referring to the responses that we know to be right as adults and parents. So play out some scenarios. Talk about the right way to respond to texts, comments, or situations—even if it means teaching your child not to respond at all, but to walk away instead.

Last but not least, limit social media.
Easier said than done, yes, I know. But do your best. If you don’t feel it’s necessary to remove phones and computers altogether at set times, then encourage your child to avoid engaging on social media. This is where kids interact. And unlike the days when a whispered conversation in the cafeteria is how we found out that everyone was hanging out without us, our kids have “stories” and “timelines” and “feeds” to let them know exactly what everyone is doing and saying at all times. This never ends well. Suggest taking a break from certain apps or blocking certain people. In the meantime, help them find other ways to engage with positive influences – a good book, homework, family time, etc.

I would love to end this article with nothing more than:

AND THAT’S HOW YOU SOLVE THE MEAN GIRL PROBLEM [mic drop]

But, sadly, this is not the end. It’s going to hurt. And it’s going to hurt because it’s real. Just remember, your job as a parent is not to fix the mean girls, but to make sure your daughter a) isn’t one of them and b) can survive them. Because sadly, mean girls grow up to be mean adults, sometimes. They will pop up in college, in work situations, in the PTA, on the playground, and in just about every other aspect of our lives. But with the right tools, the right perspective, and the knowledge, that at the very least, our mom thinks we’re amazing? Well, I’m pretty sure we can survive just about anything.