Girl bullying. Mean girls. Relational bullying. Whatever you call it, it’s bullying and most girls will experience some form of it at some point during their childhood.
I recently gave a talk about bullying to a group of parents in my city. Afterward, a nervous-looking dad approached the front of the room to ask me a question.
“My daughter is a good kid,” he said, adding that she was just ten years old. “Her friend made this announcement at school last Friday—I think it might even have been a joke at first—she said that nobody should talk to a certain boy in their class. My daughter thought that was stupid, so she walked up to the boy and said ‘Hi’ and talked to him anyway.”
The father sighed before continuing. “I was really proud of her…”
But the next day when his daughter came home from school, she was crushed. “She told me that because she had ‘broken the rule’ and spoken to the boy who was being ignored, none of her friends would talk to her.”
On Monday morning, she didn’t want to go to school. “It was awful,” he said. “She was crying, begging not to go. I couldn’t believe this was happening.”
In the end, she went. Monday was a hard day. But by Wednesday, his daughter was back on an even keel with her friends.
But the dad still wasn’t on an even keel. He was wary and anxious. He wanted his daughter to confront her friend, or better yet, to drop that group of friends altogether. And he certainly didn’t want to see that “mean girl” in his house.
This story strikes to the heart of what has become known as “relational bullying.” You may also hear the terms “mean girls” or “relational aggression,” which are just different words for the same thing. Relational bullying can include tactics such as:
But that’s not all. It typically involves recruiting others to do the same against someone. The result is often devastating for the victim.
Chances are that at some point your daughter will come home from school feeling excluded, targeted, or ostracized. In many cases, she may even be scared. At any rate, her world at that moment will be truly miserable.
If you are fortunate, she will turn to you for guidance, and maybe she will share with you how she feels. Although that moment as a parent is very painful, it can also be an opportunity for your daughter. It can be a time for your daughter to learn some valuable problem-solving skills. And it can be a time for your daughter to learn resilience.
Most parents, especially mothers, have experienced betrayal by friends in the past and seeing a daughter crushed by a secret revealed or a mean trick can trigger an old hurt. While this is natural, it may not be the best reaction for our child.
Keep in mind that many kids worry that their parents will be disappointed if they are not popular or well-liked. And that additional worry gets piled on top of the hurt they are carrying home from school. Therefore, if you don’t get a grip on your own worry, your daughter may feel that she’s not living up to your expectations. This is a response we can scarcely afford. In the end, our best chance to keep our kids healthy and strong is to hear from them how they are really doing and feeling.
When our kids come to us and tell us they are being bullied, we have to be ready to listen. After you have listened to your child’s story, you can begin to ask questions like:
“What do you think you can say next time? What do you think might work?”
Help your child see what the outcome might be of their words and actions. For example, role play and let her figure out what’s really going to work in this situation. Keep in mind that sometimes our best-intended ideas don’t really pan out in a school setting. Ask your daughter:
“What’s going to make you feel better about this situation?”
But make sure you’re not the only one coming up with the solution. It’s important that your daughter feels like she can try to solve the problem on her own terms. At the same time, she should feel free to ask for your help.
Related content: My Child is being Bullied—What Should I Do?
Make sure that your daughter knows that it’s okay to be angry. Let her voice her sense of betrayal. And let her know that she has the right to expect better. Make sure she knows that she is valuable and help her find tools to cope with her situation using her own courage and resilience.
Help her find alternatives to her situation within the school. Talking through options ranging from finding allies and other friends, to getting involved in new activities.
Remind your daughter that allies turn up in unexpected places, including kids in other groups. It is not uncommon for kids, even in a small school, to be surprised to find out that they have something in common with the student who sits next to them in math class.
Like adults, kids develop social ruts. When those ruts fail us, it’s time to look, and sometimes not very far, for a change.
If her school friends feel like the center of her universe and they are turning on her, suggest developing a social life outside of school. Consider community-sponsored art classes, music lessons, or sports.
Give her the choice of trying something she’s always wanted to do. Your daughter does not have to be a star to benefit from the sense of belonging and support of a team.
If team sports don’t suit your child’s disposition, look to fencing, cycling, martial arts, theater, chorus, or bowling. The activity itself doesn’t matter as much as the positive social experience.
Ultimately, the goal is to give your daughter an outlet where she can increase confidence and widen her circle. She will learn a valuable lesson: she doesn’t “need” the mean girls.
If the bullying behavior is illegal, if she has been threatened with harm, if her property has been destroyed, or if she has been physically assaulted, a parent has no choice but to let the school know and contact law enforcement.
Keep in mind that it may diminish the severity of the situation to describe a threat as mere bullying. So, be clear and specific about what has happened.
Of course, school is still the place you send your daughter to learn, even if your daughter seeks friendships outside of school. For this reason, you still need to let teachers and administrators know what’s going on. This can be a tricky dilemma for parents whose daughters insist that they not tell anyone.
If you decide to talk to your daughter’s school, let her know what you are doing ahead of time. It is essential that your child trusts you, and continues to confide in you.
If the situation is upsetting to her but is not severe, ask her if she feels like she can handle it safely on her own. If she can, then, by all means, let her. Let her show and build her resilience by tackling the problem head-on. I believe that resilience is a skill and that too often we deprive our children of the opportunity to practice it. Instead of protecting our kids, we end up preventing them from growing.
But, if your daughter seems to want your assistance but is concerned that she will feel ridiculed for seeking help, see if you can figure out a way to get that help discreetly.
Most teachers are willing to talk with the class (or a smaller group of students) about specific incidences of bullying. For some kids, merely having the spotlight shown on their behavior by a respected adult can act as a deterrent. This is particularly true of the quiet cuts and rumor-spreading that characterizes relational bullying, as these same students causing harm may be accustomed to getting along well with teachers and flying under the radar.
Many parents are concerned that their daughter will be harassed for being a “tattle tale.” But, keep in mind that your daughter is probably not the only person who has been targeted at her school or even by the particular child who is doing the bullying. In fact, any of the targets, or even the teacher, could have potentially raised this issue. At any rate, just make sure to tell the teacher your concerns.
Parents should also keep in mind that teachers have their own issues that might make it difficult to address the bullying. Consider the case where the bully is a star athlete or the child of a prominent member of the community? Schools, despite all the anti-bullying campaigns, can have norms and even formal policies that privilege some kids over others. It’s not right, but it’s a reality that you should consider. If you think the bully is somehow being protected, then you may need to seek out the principal, superintendent, or even a school board member. Some schools even have bullying and harassment officers that you can contact.
Once your child has made her way through a fight and healed wounds with a friend, whether with your help or on her own, there’s a good chance you will face another obstacle: your own anger.
Like the father at the beginning of this article, many parents struggle with the urge to bar the offending child from the house or the desire to forbid your child to talk to her. But be patient, it might take your child a while to figure out that the kid who burned her is a friend she really doesn’t want to have.
As parents, we can help provide our children with the framework, or scaffolding, for making that decision. And we can talk to them about what we can expect and what we deserve from a true friend, what is fair, and how to deal with conflict, including specific words and role-playing. Therefore, encourage her to say what she feels and thinks, what she likes and doesn’t. And don’t be afraid to talk about how a child who has been labeled a bully might be suffering, and from what.
But as to whether that girl can be your friend? If your daughter knows that she is valued and has your support and deserves good friends, she’ll figure out who she wants her friends to be.
Remind your daughter that though she does have to be respectful to everyone, she does not have to be friends with everyone. Tell your daughter:
“Choose the people you let in carefully.”
The message here is clear:
“You don’t need to let everybody in.”
Ultimately, our best weapon against relational bullying—or any bullying—is to have an open line of communication with our kids. In other words, let them know that they can turn to us and count on us for sensible advice, long before the problem becomes too big.
Peggy Moss is a leading advocate for bullying prevention in North America. She is a former civil rights prosecutor, a sought-after speaker on the subject of Bullying Prevention, and the author of three award-winning books for Children: Say Something, Our Friendship Rules and One of Us. Ms. Moss serves on the board of directors of PREVNet, Canada’s authority on research and resources for bullying prevention. She is a graduate of Princeton University and Washington College of Law at American University. She has been interviewed for her expertise by the The Boston Globe, The Globe and Mail and Discovery Channel, among others.