What happens when mean girls grow up?

Laura Sessions Stepp
Friday, February 18, 2011; 11:00 AM

Do bullies ever grow out of bullying? Show like "The Real Housewives" may contribute to the idea that a generation of mean girls has evolved into mean women, but new research suggests "queen bee" behavior doesn't fly after high school.

Laura Sessions Stepp wrote about the topic in The Washington Post Magazine and took questions on Feb. 18. The transcript is below.


Laura Sessions Stepp: Hi, I'm Laura Sessions Stepp, and happy to chat with you about my Washington Post article on mean girls/women. Please begin.


washingtonpost.com: Have you made peace with a mean girl? Were you one in a former life? Tell us your story by using #meangirls on Twitter or sharing in the comments.


Potomac Falls, Virginia : Bullying, exclusion, and Queen Bee behavior seem to be out of control in Northern Virginia where I live. I have coworkers whose young daughters in middle school are bullied and taunted. My own incredibly bright, beautiful 16 year old daughter who should be a enjoying her High school years, is opting to graduate a year early this year as she really hates the exclusion and cliques at school. "Everyone has known everyone forever she says, and noone wants to let anyone new into their group". "People talk to me in class, but no one is wlling to invite me out afterwards". Girls have even started a rumor that she is graduating early because she is pregnant. My question is why do Middle School and High school administrators (especially in the Northern Virginia area where this is so prevalent) ignore the girl bullying issue even when it has been brought to their attention? Even more puzzling is that the parents of these girls condone their behavior when they know about it. It is sickening that some parents are raising the next generation of girls to be less compassionate and well "MEAN". Do you think that starting in Middle school through high school that their should be focus groups of girls empowering girls so that girls learn empathy since they are not learning it at home?

Laura Sessions Stepp: What a fabulous idea of girls teaching girls. I assume you mean older girls working with younger girls and an adult facilitator. That would be a good project for high school student council members....

I would not say that all middle and high school administrators are ignoring the problem; I know several who are actively working on this issue. Meanness is a popular topic at administrator conferences. But administrators also need support and encouragement from parents.


wealthy suburb, New England: I'm 39, and I question the premise that women in college and their 20s are fully "grown up" enough to compare high-school behaviors.

As a single mom scraping by to give my daughter the best public education in our state, I can tell you that PLENTY of mean girls stay that way into adulthood and parenthood. And surprise, they raise Mean Girls (and boys too).

Laura Sessions Stepp: Certainly there are women, young and old, who can be mean. It has always been thus, and the same can be said of men. There is no real evidence, however, that there are more mean women or men now than when you were in school. Meanness is more public, certainly, and there are more ways to be mean. These things may give us the impression that there are more.


Hollywood, Fl: Don't know if I believe that "The Mean Girl Syndrome" goes away after high school. I have seen it in the workplace a couple of times. The "mean girls" pick another employee to harass, until the that person ends up quitting. Or the "mean girls" convince the boss that the person who is the object of their bullying is "the weakest link in their team", resulting in the person getting fired. Both times it was younger employees singling out older employees that they considered to be not as "cool" as the bullies feel they themselves are. It is very sad to watch these people lose their self confidence while the bullying progresses.

Laura Sessions Stepp: Several of you have addressed the issue of mean women at work picking on other women. I personally have known a mean woman or two in my professional career, so I know what you're saying.

Laura Sessions Stepp: We don't expect it from other women. But we've got to remind ourselves that bullies are masking their own sense of being inferior, and that in most, tho not all cases, the best strategy is to ignore the bully and do your job the best you know how.


Washington D.C.: Hi Laura great article. I was bullied in junior high and high school. My Mother in particular was not helpful since she had an almost Darwinian opinion about the whole thing. her attitude was "Well they see someone weak, lose weight don't let them have a chance to say anything bad about you". It took me after college to really see the whole thing for what it was bullying.

Laura Sessions Stepp: Thanks for you comment. Good point that as we grow up, we see bullies for what they are.


Maybe it's my age . . .: ... or maybe it's because I went to a different high school than most of the girls in my white working-class Catholic neighborhood (I graduated in 1974). But I didn't encounter those Mean Girl antics after eighth grade. Before that point, I was definitely a target of Mean Boys as well as Mean Girls; once I got to high school, though, the meanest behavior I remember encountering was gossip. Have things really gotten that much worse since my adolescence? Or are researchers like Ms. Stepp drawing overly-broad conclusions from the experience of a narrow demographic group?

Laura Sessions Stepp: Judging from the comments I'm getting, bullying in middle and high school is a real problem. But as I said in an earlier post, I'm not sure it's worse than it used to be, just more visible due to facebook and other digital properties.


Washington, DC: Sixth & I is hosting an event on this same topic on March 29. Rosalind Wiseman, author of "Queen Bees and Wannabes," will lead an interactive program called "Mean Girls All Grown Up: Getting Beyond the Drama and Finding Empowering Friendships with Women" for women in their 20s and 30s.

washingtonpost.com: Event: Mean girls all grown up -- Getting beyond the drama and finding empowering friendships with women

Laura Sessions Stepp: Thank you for the alert. Wiseman is a very good speaker. I love the title: empowering friendships with women. Those friendships get us past the occasional bully and remind us of the strengths women share with each other.


Berkeley, CA: While research may show that mean girls post high school do not stay that way, certainly the urge for women to organize themselves around a queen bee at all ages does not change. The players may change but not the pattern.

Laura Sessions Stepp: There's merit in what you say. But can we not say the same thing about male lead dogs? One real danger of the mean girl story line is that it plays to the stereotype of the female "b...."


Mean Women: Perhaps the drive to egg someone's house or to post mean things on facebook goes away as women grow up, but as a 20-something I've seen friends mature into the confidence to stick to their cliques (where as high schoolers they were more open to others) and become more exclusive, if not necessarily mean. Perhaps it is just my social circle, but I'd say the meanness simply refines itself and changes rather than going away. Human nature is human nature at 5, 15, and 55.

Laura Sessions Stepp: But brain development is not the same at 5 and 55. Human's ability to differ between right and wrong, and other aspects of moral development, aren't fully in place until the mid-20s.


Upstate, NY: I've noticed in my office, where about 75% of the employees are women, there are a lot of "mean girls." While not quite as bad as high schoolers, people receive mean nicknames, are ostracized from the common areas, and call HR over hurt feelings. I work in an industry one can enter without a college degree and wonder if it's actually something about going off to college and being more independent at 18 or 19 that starts to quell the meaness and if one continues living in essentially the same neighborhood and socializing with the same high school friends, the attitudes don't change.

Laura Sessions Stepp: That's a good point about staying in the same neighborhood. I went to a high school reunion a few years back and noticed the same thing. Travel is broadening, as they say.


DC: Maybe we all just become less sensitive. When I went to my high school reunion, 10 years ago, a girl who I barely remembered confronted me and said that I had said something mean to her all those years ago, and she asked for my apology. Of course I offered it and congratulated her for all of her successes. I don't feel like I was a mean girl in high school (more like a big dork) but maybe I just said the wrong thing to the wrong girl, at the wrong time. I know things are different now with facebook, etc. but I hope that my daughter will grow up confident in herself and not worry too much about what others say or think of her. We grow up, we change, we move on.

Laura Sessions Stepp: Good for her for talking to you and to you for apologizing. One of the reasons the mean girl topic hangs on, I think, is that we've probably all been mean to someone either knowingly or unknowingly and carry a little part of that around with us.


Reston, Va.: As someone working in a school, I can tell you administrators are doing much less than you think and it's appalling. There are lots of guidance lessons and parent meetings about how wrong bullying is, but ask one of those mean girls and they will tell you they aren't bullying. That's what's so hard about girls. The schools hands are tied because it's so difficult to single the actions out and find something to punish. Telling secrets and whispering? Excluding from an activity/group? Parents would cause an uproar if we punished anyone, anyway, so the school ignores it.

Laura Sessions Stepp: Have you thought of having a school community discussion with students and parents about what constitutes mean behavior? Perhaps recruiting students and parents to tell their own stories? Have a counselor or expert on hand to facilitate?


Alexandria VA: To my surprise, I recently received a message from one of my Facebook friends, a former h.s. acquaintance, who apologized for being mean to me back in high school. I was not entirely sure what incident she had in mind, although I think I know. Anyway, I wrote back and said don't worry about, probably no one would want to be judged forever by some foolish thing they did as a teenager.

We are 60 years old. Just shows there is hope; the incident clearly had weighed on her mind and she wanted to make amends. It was a nice gesture.

Laura Sessions Stepp: Absolutely right.


A Seinfeld comparison: As a comedic aside, I'm suddenly reminded of the Seinfeld episode where Jerry and George talk about how teenage boys would give each other wedgies in high school. Elaine sneers at the very notion of this, and when asked how girls picked on each other, she responded very casually with, "They just tease each other until someone develops an eating disorder."

Laura Sessions Stepp: Thank you for that.


Mean girls: This isn't just a problem in the U.S. I attended an international school in Brussels, Belgium in the 1980s and came in for a lot of bulling from a couple of Irish girls in my class. I've reconnected with many of my classmates on Facebook, but not those two (although one has a quote up on her page about treating people the way you want to be treated, so she may have learned a lesson or two since our schooldays). But it took me years to think about what was possibly happening to these girls at home to make them this way in public. Everyone can stand to have a little empathy.

Laura Sessions Stepp: Absolutely.


Baltimore, MD: I have a somewhat unique situation because in middle school (and a little bit in high school), my own personal mean girl was my cousin. So, I've had a front row seat as to what happens when someone like this grows up, and the answer seems to be... nothing interesting.

I still see flashes of her mean girl ness (often on Facebook)- her personal specialty seems to be relentless bragging and friend poaching, which she still does, but she's gotten better. I've learned to deal with it. But mostly my cousin is perfectly nice and fine, she's married and has plenty of friends and is expecting a baby. However, while I've traveled, gone to grad school, lived in different cities, married lateish, moved away from home, etc, she went home from college every weekend, married her high school boyfriend 5 minutes after she graduated college, built a house 10 minutes from her mom, and took a boring but stable job that she's probably going to quit to stay at home once the baby comes.

I'm not saying either of our life paths is better than the other. But I do get the sense, anecdotally, that mean girls "peak" in high school, and their lives sort of level off from there, while those of us who went through high school thinking "God I hope this isn't the best time of my life" make more use of our independence once we get it.

Laura Sessions Stepp: Thanks for sharing this.


Boston, MA: As a former Mean Girl, I can say that I've successfully channeled that Alpha personality type into a successful career as a magazine editor. I graduated high school in 2005, the same year as Cady Heron, and looking back, not only do I regret my actions toward other girls, but I've sought them out to apologize. Now, I can be a mean boss, but I'm no longer a mean girl. We do mature and become successful, independent young women with happy lives, friendships and relationships.

Laura Sessions Stepp: Thanks for sharing this. Curious what you mean by mean boss? I've had bosses I thought were mean but who really were just super demanding and I learned a lot from them. Is that what you mean?


Seattle WA: Even if the mean girls (and boys) grow up and become nicer, I don't think their previous cruelty should be taken lightly or easily forgiven.

Laura Sessions Stepp: I completely agree about taken lightly. What we're hearing from other people in this chat is talking to them, at the time or years later, may be one strategy.


Takoma Park: Is Hollywood helping or hurting with the whole Mean Girl thing? Doesn't it seem like there are so few role models in popular culture when it comes to nice girls?

Laura Sessions Stepp: ABSOLUTELY! Hollywood is obsessed with mean girls and mean women and give us all the impression that that's just how life is. And some of the producers of those shows are women, which I don't understand. Maybe it's a ratings thing. Maybe someone in Hollywood needs to figure out how to make nice girls compelling to watch.


Dupont Circle: I was bullied terribly in middle school for being dorky and untrendy (I really was). First day of high school, suddenly the "cool" kids wanted to be my friend-- because they felt out of place finally in a new environment. Some do grow out of the antics. But I think they remain, particularly in industries where being competitive and extroverted are an advantage. Politics, sales, law, you find "mean" antics everywhere. But as you grow up, you start to realize that the awful behavior originates with insecurities, or emotional instability, or a near total disregard for the needs of others. "Me First" syndrome. Rampant in DC! I think it belittles the problem to say that kids will just "grow up." No child should have to endure torture; perpetrators should be held responsible for their actions, and victims should know that they have support.

Laura Sessions Stepp: I agree that we shouldn't stop with "mean kids grow up." And your last sentence is absolutly right. That said, it is also important to not just dwell on the problems - that can easily lead to an "oh there's nothing I can do" attitude. There are strategies we can put into place early in children's lives, several good books on the subject. Most importantly, we need to give kids/young people the sense that things will get better and there are other, successful ways of relating to people.


Building empathy: I work in public schools too and I agree that one of the most effective means of addressing bullying for both boys and girls is to get kids to know one another as people and thus emphathize with them. I observed one mentoring program where students (boys int this case) were put into a group together for a semester, one period a day. The counselor facilitated it and it involved discussions, team building exercises, etc. A huge emphasis on communication and interpersonal problem solving.

All the boys were from different walks of life, some were bullies, and some were the bullied. One thing that all the boys said was that by the end of the class, even if they weren't best friends, at the very least they understood and respected one another. If they saw each other in the hall they would greet each other. Things like that.

I think it's true that many times kids don't know what they're doing, the effect of their words, the ramifications of their actions. By teaching them early to relate to one another and personalize one another, it causes them to think more clearly about how to treat others. That's true for everyone, not just boys or girls.

Laura Sessions Stepp: Thank you for sharing this.


Raleigh, NC: Is there a strong link between disruption at home (e.g., divorce) and aggression at school? My niece was suspended for three days for making threats to other girls (cut off your hair if you don't join our clique) not to long after her parents went through a divorce. How linked is parent's dysfunction to pre-teen's nasty behavior? Can parents' retain moral standing to rebuke when they themselves have been involved in infidelity leading to breakup? Seems to me that the victims of school aggression are often innocent bystander caught in the crossfire of others' family turbulance.

Laura Sessions Stepp: There absolutely is a link there - research literature has shown it over and over.


Arnold, MD: I was bullied consistently from about 4th grade on in a small town, and got to enjoy high school because somewhere in 8th grade, I realized the problem wasn't me, it was them, and I just ignored their behavior from then on.

However, I find myself 34 and very unwilling to friend-back those girls from high school who have found me on facebook. They had nothing good to say to me then, why on earth do I need or want their friendship or approval now?

I think the best lesson I can pass on to my children is to take the high road, that anyone who doesn't isn't smart or brave enough.

Laura Sessions Stepp: Great lesson for your children - I would also say that it's important to teach them to understand that bullies are acting out of insecurity and perhaps, as one reader just said, problems at home. We don't have to be friends with them, but we can try to understand their behavior.


Speaking of schools: I've witnessed some "mean girl" behavior from the moms in PTA, committees, and playground cliques. Queen bees, indeed, some of them. While others are inclusive and supportive. There seems to be much less of that behavior in the workplace, IMHO.

Laura Sessions Stepp: While some of the readers might disagree with your workplace comment, I happen to agree. As I stated in the article, companies are discovering that one upmanship isn't, in the long term, a productive or profitable way to run a business.


USA: The mean girl in my life was my sister. Passive agressiveness, control issues, bullying, you name it. I grew up genuinely believing I was "uncool", "dull", "nice, but only in a stupid sort of way".

This actually worked out to my advantage as I've grown up. Being uncool means I don't have to keep up with what's trendy if I don't want to. Being "dull" is what made me an engineer. Being "nice and stupid" helps me be a better mentor to kids with learning difficulties.

When I look back at her and see how she's so trapped within herself with all her anger and selfishness, I realize that in the long run, I ended up being more stable and can tackle stress and challenges much better than her.

Strange how life works itself out. I feel sorry for her and yet, I can't spend more than a day in her company, because she still feels the need to snipe and be negative rather than have the courage to take on a challenge.

Laura Sessions Stepp: Thanks for sharing this.


Laurel, MD: I went to a number of schools in middle and high school. Sometimes I was the mean girl and sometimes I was the one being bullied- it all depended on the school dynamic.

Even though it sucked at the time, I still chalk it up to what it was- CHARACTER BUILDING. If we are all coddled and love each other through our developemental years, we are going to grow up unable to deal with those people when we encounter them.

Mean girls aren't any different today than they were thirty years ago. They just have more tools at their disposal. Mean girls are just as essential to growing up as nice girls.

Laura Sessions Stepp: That's an interesting perspective. Thanks for sharing it.


Developmental stage: Often bullying behavior can be attributed to insecurity and a lack of empathy. Adolescence is a time during which kids typically are both much more insecure and more self absorbed than they are at younger and older ages. Is this bullying that is getting such recognition right now more rightfully considered a temporary phase in most (not all) people than a sign of either permanent bad character or a whole generation gone wrong? Bullying has always been worse during these ages, and while so much focus has been on the male bully, it's not really a suprise that girls do it too, if in more subtle ways.

I'm not dismissing bullying at all, and I think it's great it's getting more attention. I just don't really think it's unique to this generation or a surprise that most people grow out of it.

Laura Sessions Stepp: Thanks for sharing this. It makes common sense that most people grow out of bullying, I agree. But as you can see from some of these comments, many people don't think that. And little wonder. Popular culture right now glamorizes meanness among so-called adults. And digital media allow us to be mean and anonymous and global.


Laura Sessions Stepp: I've got to sign off now. Sorry I couldn't get to all of your questions. The sheer number suggests this is a good conversation to keep going with other people. Thanks for chatting!

Laura Sessions Stepp


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