As a teacher, It’s hard to watch. The shift from elementary to middle school is a difficult time for many kids and girls seem to be especially vulnerable. Left unchecked, complicated frenemy experiences can chip away at girls’ self-esteem. As the excitement of a new school year wanes, there’s a change in their body language. Shrinking into their clothes, eyes downcast, furtive glances over shoulders. The awareness dawns – their entire social world has changed, and not in a good way.
How can you help girls survive middle school mean-girl behavior? Middle school is a big transition for girls and they need to be prepared that friendships will come and go. Counseling helps girls manage stress in healthier ways. Addressing the physical, emotional and social changes they’ll experience will reduce the risk to lowered self-esteem and related problems.
The problem in a nutshell? Middle school is a heady, sometimes frightening, mix of greater autonomy and search for identity.
When you add puberty and competitive friendships, it’s a perfect storm.
New middle schoolers find themselves navigating a different world. They experience:
- More interest in romantic attachments – in earlier grades romance may have been a domain of the advanced few; crushes may now include even the late bloomers. Attraction and confusion are in the air.
- Greater freedoms – In a day, middle schoolers can move through 6 – 8 classrooms. Passing between classes in the halls, the bus ride and lunch allows more unstructured time.
- In addition, because students from two or three elementary schools usually converge on a central middle school, the first year adds many new personalities into the mix.
- New relationships in middle school increase intensity in shifting group dynamics. Boys and girls all compete for places in the power structure.
- Peer groups are all-important now. Friendship is based on status in addition to a shared past or common interests. More socially adept girls discover that friendship can be leveraged to influence others.
In certain groups, mean girls take this perfect storm and exploit it in ways that psychologists describe as social cruelty or relational aggression.
All total, I have 8 years of experience teaching at the middle school level. Having seen first-hand the shambles that a middle school social scene can make of a kid’s self-image, I worried as my daughter finished grade 5. I watched, asked some questions and waited. I brought up some of the drama currently afoot in my middle school so that she would know that navigating the mean girl experience is common.
My message? We can talk about this.
I wasn’t exactly sure how I could help, but I wasn’t going to stand by and watch her crumble, either.
My daughter had weathered several social scuffles in the early months of grade 6. She saw her friends from elementary band together to mock clothing, haircuts and friend choices of other kids. That was the point where she made a decision. She would be oblivious to “the drama” as she called it. She focused hard on academics and activities.
Over time, she cultivated a teflon-like exterior of neutrality in her middle school world – never getting too close to the “dangerous” girls and not making enemies of them either. She also made a couple of solid friends.
She let go of elementary school friends who now invested in social drama and brought a book when the company was lacking. She shared that she sat alone sometimes and that it was okay. When things got too intense in the lunchroom, she escaped to the calm of the library.
Rising above it like this may be an option to some girls, but it does take the laser focus of a Zen master. When I was twelve, my own experience dealing with mean girls was much messier.
How Can School Staff Intervene to Reduce Mean Behavior?
School administrators recognize the problem. To combat social cruelty, anti-bullying programs have sprung up in many schools, often billed as diversity clubs or school-wide respect committees. And for the most part, programs like these do create a warmer school culture. Among the goals of groups like these are to understand the problems of exclusion and build tolerance for differences.
Students may organize social events like “No One Sits Alone Day” in the cafeteria or train to be an “upstander” which leverages peer pressure to deter bullying. The Anti-Defamation League is active in training student advocates as Ally Leaders.
In addition, teachers have opportunities to structure positive classrooms to minimize relational aggression and increase tolerance. A sensitive teacher can remix cliques into separate groups and help strengthen working relationships across the entire class. This gives every student the chance to experience the perspectives of others.
Despite our best efforts, middle school is still a social jungle. There are gorillas to rattle the treetops and snakes lurking in the underbrush. Empathy, or the ability to see the world through another’s eyes, is still developing.
Conflicts Between Boys and Girls are Different
When middle school boys are aggressive, there’s an obvious disruption. It might be yelling, trash talk, maybe even a physical scuffle, It’s clear that there’s trouble and the boys are held accountable when it’s all sorted out.
The usual underlying reason for the conflict? To test or confirm the social pecking order. It’s the quest for power and dominance.
Girls’ aggressions may be different, but the drives behind them are the same.
When girls attack, they’re more likely to use relationships as a weapon. The attacks are often quiet and use different, sneakier tactics. Some girls may be physically aggressive in middle school, but more common is the “death-by-a-thousand-cuts” approach.
Carl Pickhardt, author of Surviving Your Child’s Adolescence, defines it as social cruelty, or the “mistreatment that arises when changing young teenagers use … teasing, exclusion, rumoring, bullying, and ganging up … to vie for social standing and dominance.”
That sums it up.
In middle school, friends are becoming all-important. Exclusion from a group can be devastating.
Girls who seek power over others have tools to establish dominance. A pointed glance, an unkind nickname, a rumor, or exclusion can hurt without alerting adults that there is a conflict. Some cliques go so far as to organize scripted shunning behaviors of one girl for a minor reason. Girls within the group risk becoming an outsider if they’re unwilling to go along with the exclusion of the target girl.
Common signs of relational aggression:
- Harassment – in-person attacks or notes/drawings left in desks, backpacks or lockers
- Mockery – clothing, appearance, ethnicity, family income, etc
- Intimidation with physical threats
- Cyberbullying – attacks through social media
- Shunning/”silent treatment”
Relational aggression often happens during the unstructured time in a school day.
If you’re inclined to be a mean girl or a minion of one, there’s a lot of time to mess with other kids. And they do. It can be so subtle, it happens under the best direct supervision of school staff.
Why does girls’ social cruelty fly under teacher radar? It’s hard to detect. It can also change on a dime. Alliances shift, drama is covert and suffering is hidden. Both aggressors and victims may deny what’s really going on. All of this confuses adults who try to intervene.
What Causes Some Girls to Act This Way?
It’s the classic nature vs. nurture debate.
Bonnie Burton, author of Girls Against Girls, breaks it down into four theories:
1. Biological – relational aggression may be partly explained by the way girls are wired. Teen brains are typically ruled by emotion and impulsivity. In addition, girls’ strong memories and social orientation mean that they remember every slight that others have committed against them – real or imagined.
Hormonal changes are rampant throughout adolescence. Estrogen and progesterone levels vary from day to day and can influence the impulses to bond with or torture friends. Empathy is not fully developed yet.
2. Socialization – Despite the many advances in gender equality, girls are still encouraged to repress anger. Burying emotions in order to get along can lead to those same emotions re-surfacing in passive-aggressive ways.
3. Legacy – Being raised or influenced by a mother or an older sister in a family which encourages relational aggression will likely create a mean-girl approach to friendships.
4. Competition – Burton cites several studies that determine girls compete for looks, popularity, and love interests. The unrealistic expectations that are set by society pressures girls to be beautiful, sweet and loving. This drives anger and competition underground.
How Can Parents Help?
First, what you shouldn’t do:
When your daughter is victimized by social exclusion, bullying or other forms of torture, it (understandably) sparks a wave of anger. Yet those feelings are probably not going to help your daughter. For one thing, you can’t force a friendship. And it’s difficult to pin down covert attacks.
Let’s explore the scenario you may have played in your mind since the bullying began to see how it would play out:
You burst into homeroom (in real life you’ll have waited for a meeting with a classroom teacher, a counselor or administrator. But this is a fantasy, so you swoop in unannounced).
You call the mean girls out in front of the class and yell, “I know what you’ve been saying/doing/not doing to my daughter and it needs to stop now!”
The girl or girls respond with wide-eyed innocence and chimes of, “Oh, I didn’t know she felt that way! I feel so bad! I’m sooo sorry!”
Your daughter shrinks into a corner, knowing that this is not going to help her situation. At all.
You seethe with frustration, realizing you can’t prove any of this. Your daughter is mortified and you’ve fed more drama into the situation.
And the girls? They’re not sorry.
As every girl is different, there are different ways to deal with mean behavior.
My research turned up some creative ways to deal with bullying when it comes in the form of verbal attacks. All methods rely on self-awareness and empowering the victim to feel less like a victim.
Some of the techniques are counter to our natural responses to aggression. They need practice to get them right. Many hinge on ways to disarm, deflect and redirect the bully.
But it’s more than helping your daughter defend herself – it’s about helping her reframe a situation and take her power back.
Our usual response to an attack is mirroring the energy of the attacker. If someone is mean, we want to be mean in return or we respond with other intense emotions. But there’s a way to short-circuit this pattern and disarm a person who is acting the role of a bully.
It’s kind of like Tai Chi – you don’t push back at a bully with the same intense energy; instead, you direct their energy in another way.
Kate Cohen-Posey, author of How to Handle Bullies, Teasers and Other Meanies, frames 3 ways to redirect a bully:
- Turn insults into Compliments – Ignore the bully’s actual words and respond as if she has said something nice.
- Ask questions with real curiosity to get at the bully’s real motivations.
- Agreeing with some piece of what the bully has said, no matter how ridiculous.
Posey’s advice is similar to that of Brooks Gibbs, a social skills educator. In this video of an actual school assembly, he models these very strategies to disarm a bully.
2. Experiment with Social Groups
Encourage your daughter to:
- Explore beyond her elementary school circle, not to exclude any old buddies, but to understand different sides of herself.
- Join a new club, sport or activity in which she will not encounter the mean girls. She may discover an entirely new group without the rules of the small world in which she suffers.
- Continue all relationships that help her feel good, and to end friendships that make her feel bad or uncomfortable.
- Make friends outside of school. Neutral friends, outside or inside school can help her get the perspective she’ll need in evaluating the troubled friendships.
- Start a journal to help process the anger, hurt, resentment that she’s likely feeling.
- Examine her own behavior to stop ways she may be feeding into or perpetuating the mean girl drama.
- Refuse to Play the Game – Like my daughter, it may be possible for yours to “opt-out” of the social exclusion game. The drama pay-off in mean-girl games is not satisfying if there’s no reaction from the target.
Other Ways You Can Help
4. Communicate Openly – Share your own middle school horror stories and how you survived. And if you’re a former mean girl yourself, don’t perpetuate the cycle with your daughter!
Help her build EMPATHY instead. No kid’s glory needs to come at another’s expense.
5. Support with Bibliotherapy – the mean girl problem is so common in middle school that there are hundreds of fictional and self-help books written for middle grades and young adults that feature characters and real people dealing with exclusion, frenemies and bullying.
Consider books like the ones below to help girls step back and understand the patterns in relational aggression.
Books have been compared to windows to see others and mirrors to see ourselves more clearly. Novels are a safe place to work out life problems. Through a character’s struggles (and eventual triumphs) girls can see that she is not alone in her experience.
It can be empowering for girls to consider different strategies and perspectives that the character tries in coping with a situation. You can collect some of these resources and start the conversations with your daughter. I’ve even read books in tandem with my kids when I knew they would spark important conversations.
Goodbye Stranger By Rebecca Stead (2015)
A story of friendship and social media explored among 3 girls struggling with frenemy behaviors and growing up.
The sequel to The Revealers, this realistic young adult novel deals with the range of behaviors that fall under the umbrella of cyberbullying.
Queen Bees and Wannabes, 3rd Edition: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boys, and the New Realities of Girl World Rosalind Wiseman (2016). Written for parents.
Girls Against Girls: Why We Are Mean to Each Other and How We Can Change By Bonnie Burton (2009). Written for girls. Provides insight into the whys and hows of social cruelty and what girls can do about it.
How to Handle Bullies, Teasers and Other Meanies: A Book That Takes the Nuisance Out of Name Calling and Other Nonsense (2018) by Kate Cohen- Posey,M.S., LMHC, LMFT
6. Ask for Help
School counselors at the middle school level are well-versed in frenemy minefields. Most counselors will meet with your daughter on a regular basis to give support.
They can also help you understand the reality of her struggle at school. Check in with counselors as she completes the transition to this new environment. Keep your eyes and ears open to all clues about how she’s doing.
Some girls may want to see a counselor outside of school. It removes the potential stigma of reaching out for help in the relatively open school environment.
7. Organize with Other Like-Minded Parents
Let’s say that your daughter has tried dealing with the cruelty herself but the problem is persistent, doesn’t improve with counseling and/or is widespread within the school. Contact the principal.
If your best efforts in getting your child’s school to recognize the scope of the problem have fallen short getting action, organizing with other parents can take your visibility up a few notches. Carl Pickhardt, author of “When Social Cruelty in Adolescence Isn’t Stopped”, suggests that parents form a group to monitor the social safety of all students. A group could function as a support, coaching parents in techniques to help kids avoid victimization and sponsoring workshops to help kids develop empathy and tolerance.
Whatever your approach to helping your daughter navigate middle school relationships with her self-esteem intact, help her understand that she’s not alone. And things will get better. Because peer relationships are so important at this age, the situation may feel unsolvable and overwhelming.
Your support is important, but her real power will come from building emotional resilience. The real takeaway of braving middle school minefields is the inner strength she’ll forge to handle difficult people everywhere.
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