It hit us in fourth grade.
The girls in my daughter’s class began to divide themselves into groups. Reports of comments that someone was “fat” or not “cool enough” directed at girls I’d known since they were 5 became prime topics of discussions at home. I heard cruel insults about my child, because her loyal friends told her about them.
I figured my daughter would eventually stumble into mean-girl territory, and that subversive manipulation, social rejection and alliance-building would leave her occasionally on the curb. But not until middle school, at the earliest. Right?
“The mean-girl thing is happening much sooner than everyone realizes,” our elementary school counselor told me when I called to talk it through. “I see it all the time.”
Bullying — or peer victimization — is “associated with depression and anxiety and social withdrawal and low self-esteem and academic problems,” says Catherine Bagwell, a professor of psychology who studies children’s social development at Oxford College of Emory University.
According to Katie Hurley, author of “No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls,” research shows that severe bullying in childhood puts adolescents at a higher risk of mental-health issues, including suicidal thoughts and behaviors, debilitating depressive symptoms, and anxiety. And one survey in Oregon of nearly 12,000 kids in grades three through eight revealed that 41 to 48 percent of girls reported experiencing what is called “relational aggression” in a month. About 4 to 6 percent experienced it daily.
The most common ways girls ages 8 to 12 bully is by mocking, teasing and calling people names, says Cosette Taillac, a child and adolescent therapist and the national strategic leader for mental health and wellness at Kaiser Permanente.
“Girls at this age are extremely conscious about how they look in relationship to others,” Taillac says. “Any way they look ‘different’ is a potential target. This goes beyond weight — it can also be about being taller or shorter, skin color, or even about things like having freckles or pimples.” A girl can also be targeted because of her name, ethnic or religious background, or the way she dresses or speaks, Taillac says.
It’s important to jump on this problem immediately, but parents don’t always know that their child is on the receiving end of a bully’s stick.
“Many of these behaviors, such as spreading rumors, saying mean and nasty things . . . verbally or online, are discrete and hard to detect,” says Meline Kevorkian, a dean at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
It also may be difficult for a girl to tell she’s being targeted because people frequently say “just joking” after bullying, says Taillac, as “a way of avoiding responsibility, blaming others and demeaning the reaction if the victim is starting to show she’s upset or if others seem disapproving.”
This rang true. My daughter said that there were many such “jokes” in the class. But what if your daughter isn’t talking about specifics, yet you suspect something is wrong?
Frequent vague complaints of stomach aches, feeling sick and headaches are signs that a child is being targeted, according to Samira Armin, a pediatrician at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston. Other warning signs include unexplained injuries or loss of personal objects (phones, clothes, books, jewelry); changes in eating and sleeping habits; loss of interest in school, declining grades or avoidance of social situations; sudden introversion or a decrease in self-esteem; and self-destructive behaviors or self-harm.
My daughter’s eyes were weary and fatigued, and she shied away from probing conversations. Too many mornings, she’d wake up hot, sweaty and in tears, and off to the doctor we went. She missed 18 days of school last year, after having near-perfect attendance when she was younger.
I felt lost, and unsure of how to help her navigate this social nightmare just as she’s learning who she is. How is she supposed to concentrate on school, swim lessons or summer camp when the gossip mill is running amok and her peers are switching their loyalties daily? And how could I keep her from becoming part of the problem?
“Listening is initially a better strategy than asking many questions since she will probably shut down with the questioning,” says Jane Timmons-Mitchell, a child psychologist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. “If you are concerned about her behavior, you should let her know that.”
To help her cope, first establish that although bullying happens, it can and will be fixed because you’re in it together, says Kevorkian. Also, tell her that you won’t embarrass her with the perpetrator or her friends. And assure her that reporting mean behavior is not tattling; reporting hurtful actions is the right thing to do, including when she witnesses other kids being bullied, Kevorkian says.
Acting out possible scenarios can also help. “Teach them to be assertive. Practice not reacting to the bully so the bully doesn’t get the emotional reaction she’s seeking,” says Bagwell. Parents can also discuss how their daughter can remove herself from a bad situation. And encourage your daughter to turn to a trusted friend for support, Bagwell says. Kevorkian adds that if the bullying is online, assure your child you will not remove privileges but will put things in place to keep her safe.
But how could I find out if my kid was becoming a mean girl herself? Victims of bullying can adopt the tactics used on them and use them on others.
“Self-reflection is key, and our young girls are not often taught to look within themselves,” says Beth Rogowsky, a member of the curriculum advisory board at Kiddie Academy. She advises that parents ask their daughters: Are you intentionally excluding a person? Are you saying mean things about someone?
It’s also important for girls to understand that instead of watching bad behavior from the sidelines, they can be part of the solution. “Activating bystanders and getting them to intervene in an appropriate way is a key to reducing bullying,” says Bagwell, who suggests asking your daughter if someone is trying to exclude people or manipulate friendships (“I won’t be your friend unless . . .”) or trying to get everyone on their side or talking behind someone’s back.
Structured activities can also help. “By participating in activities such as a team sport, music groups or social clubs, your daughter will develop new abilities and social skills, and learn what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior and soon learn to surround themselves with positive influences,” says Armin.
Even if your daughter hasn’t confronted a mean-girl situation, regularly talking with her can lay groundwork if a crisis arises. You’ll have an open line of communication established, says Bagwell. “Ask questions such as: Who did you sit with at lunch? Who played together at recess? What was the kindest thing you said to someone today? What was the kindest thing someone said to you today? What did you do with your friends that made you laugh? Do you think anyone felt left out today? Did you have any disagreements with friends today?”
This way, you’ll get a sense of the dynamics of her peer group, let your daughter know that talking with you about her friends is a normal part of everyday conversations, and provide a foundation for what is normal and what seems amiss, says Bagwell.
I’m keeping those conversations going with my daughter every day, about how others act and how she is expected to behave. We also talk about why some people are mean and how kindness can go a long way to help someone who is hurting. And hopefully, it will ease her path through the next few years a bit. That is worth the effort.
Carol Kaufmann is a writer and editor who lives in Alexandria, Va. Find her on Twitter @KaufmannCarol.
Correction: A previous version of this article said that Texas Children’s Hospital is in Austin. It is in Houston.
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