I have a first grader. So far, knock wood, she hasn’t yet experienced mean girl behavior – at least to my knowledge – and I assure you, I probe for this type of stuff. Part of the reason I poke and prod for it is because I have many friends who also have first graders and Kindergarteners and I hear them worrying about mean girl behavior at their daughter’s school. Part of me can’t believe this stuff is happening already.
So my litmus test is always my mom. This is a woman who raised four girls so she ought to know something about mean girl behavior and if it’s crazy that it’s starting so young. She seemed not surprised when I asked if it seems early to be happening at this age and she quickly relayed a story of me being jerked around in about the first grade, she witnessed it first hand, and I seemed blissfully unaware that I was being jerked around at the time while my mom’s head was ready to blow off her neck.
As I was mulling about what the best approach is for a parent to take in these situations and wondered how my friends might handle it, I stumbled upon a Babble article that my friend and local parenting coach, Meghan Leahy, posted on her Facebook page. The entire piece was about young mean girls – when it hit me – OF COURSE – it’s time to ask Meghan for some tips on handling mean little girls. Right?
If you recall, Meghan has made some pretty amazing cameo appearances here on WM with excellent advice for parents, like on raising balanced kids and having some much needed perspective. So today, we’re talking with her about how best to help your child but not hinder them when they are facing down some mean girl behavior and more importantly – not make something a bigger deal. I also really wanted to know – is this “Normal” and age appropriate behavior from kids as young as 4 and 5 up to 7 and 8 years old? So let’s get started with Meghan:
WM: Again, back to my mom, she’s frequently heard reminding me that if I don’t make a big deal out of something, my kids won’t make a big deal out of it. My instinct is – given the young age of these kids – does this same philosophy apply to Mean Girl behavior? How can parents best guide and respond to our young elementary school age kids when they are facing mean girl like behavior at school? And more importantly – how do we guide but not helicopter parent and not get too involved???
Meghan Leahy Parent Coach:
Have little girls (ages 3-7) become “bullies” or “meaner” than they used to be? I clearly remember girls being incredibly unkind and even bullying (myself, included), but to be honest, I know these memories are from middle school. Four, five, six years old? It feels like girls are meaner these days, but doesn’t that sound like everything an older generation says? “Parents are more lazy,” or “kids are so ill-behaved nowadays”, and “everything is going to hell-in-a-hand basket these days.” And now the epidemic of bullying is trickling down to four-year-old girls? My first impulse is to roll my eyes.
My own child had such a horrible “friend” in PreK that is was all I could do to not throttle the other kid, as well as send daughter and myself to therapy. It felt like bullying, but I knew better. Bullying is more systemic, more targeted, and more deliberate…not something four-year-old children normally do. I didn’t know what I was dealing with five years ago, but I knew I had to coach my daughter through the experience, a friendship was truly hurt (between two families), and I was left feeling like, “Whoa…what was that all about?”
My “regular mom” reaction is to say, “Stop overreacting! Kids are kids! They usually work out their little tussles!” But we aren’t talking about “little tussles,” are we? We are talking about little girls and some truly mean behaviors. Is it bullying? Not exactly, but the parent coach in me knows that we cannot turn our back on these little girls!
So, for extra tips and ideas, I turned to an excellent book called, Little Girls Can Be Mean by Michelle Anthony, PhD and Reyna Lindert, PhD. In a world of middle and high school bullying books, Little Girls Can Be Mean is a great resource for the befuddled parent of little girls. Easy-to-read, sensible, and to the point, this book should be on your bookshelf.
Here are some crucial tips from the book (and me!) for the worried parents of little girls:
- Boys get more attention because their “mean” behaviors are typically more violent. Parents and teachers alike are pretty well equipped to step into the boy fights, but the girl’s meanness? It appears to be met with a shrug, an eye-roll, and a “girls will girls” kind of attitude. Sometimes leaving the girls alone is the answer, but not always. Girls need boundaries, too!
- Meanness in little girls is NOT (technically) bullying, and it is going to happen…no matter what you do. Human development specialists and psychologists agree that children, starting as early as three, will strive to belong to groups, and some of that belonging takes the form of excluding others. It begins with simple phrasing, “I don’t want to play with you today,” and can turn into the creation of clubs and groups in which everyone is included but one or two girls. Sounds pretty mean, right? But even the best helicopter parenting, controlling of friends, and best schools will not completely stop this from happening. So, with that in mind…
- You can truly intervene (with some great results) at these early ages. Children are not fully “bullies” or “being bullied” quite yet…so stepping in with some tools can help!
Some of these tools are:
- Building an empathic listening relationship and simply being aware. Rather than telling your child what to do and how to feel, simply listen to her. Listen and become aware of patterns…is she always talking about a certain friend or situation? Rather than telling her to just ignore the friend, get quiet and listen.
- Help her create solutions. Obviously, how you are going to speak to a four-year old is going to be very different from how you speak to a six-year-old, but helping to create solutions sounds like role-modeling, pointing out the other friends who are nice your daughter, how to find help in school (counselors and teachers), and finding ways to bring everybody into the play.
- Cultivate a strong family value around meanness and the behaviors associated with it. Let your girls clearly know what is acceptable and what is not. Parents often assume that their girls know what is appropriate and what isn’t, or that little girls know how to be good friends. Oftentimes, though, girls of all ages need role modeling, direct messages, and strong examples. Having family conversations while watching tv, reading books together, or seeing behaviors out in the world will help drive home your family values and cultivate listening within the whole family. Again, belonging is hard-wired into humans, but our culture is rife with meanness right now, from the reality shows to the programming for kids. Are little girls meaner earlier? Yes, I think sometimes they are…but I believe that is the symptom, not the problem.
- As much as you can, parents should try to resist becoming involved in the “she said/she said” of little girl meanness. There is always the caveat of if you feel like your child is in danger or is showing behaviors that alarm you, please seek professional help. Otherwise, a parent should be wary of managing the fights and taking sides. Taking sides and fighting your little girl’s battles does not help her for the future, doesn’t teach her how to solve her problems, and it doesn’t it create new solutions for the girl to rely on in her future. And, like sibling arguments, you are never really totally sure who is at fault in the retelling of the story, so taking sides is often futile.
- Most importantly, helping your young daughter learn how to be a good friend and handle mean behaviors (NOW) will help her in the future. Helping your little girl to tap into her good judgment, her empathy, and creative solutions will more likely result in a young woman who is not bullied (or bullies others!)
Back to WM: Thanks for these tips Meghan, and the guidance. I really appreciate the book advice, I will certainly be adding it to my next Amazon shopping cart. It sounds like Meghan is advising the very thing that is hardest for me, anyway, to do – which is to be quiet and LISTEN and also – to not rush in and try to fix things. I mean, that’s your instinct as a parent – right – especially when your child is hurt – but I think the distinction that it’s not helping them to learn how to navigate in this world is an important reminder, at least for me. Thank you Meghan!
For more great advice from Meghan, be sure to follow her on Facebook or her amazing web site, Positively Parenting, or on her resourceful blog for Discovery. And as always, I hope you’ll join the super fly WM community by hitting “Like” on my Wired Momma FB page (seriously – I am FOUR away from a sweet nice round fabulous number…FOUR people….aren’t there four of you who Like moi?). If not, you’re totally missing out, yo.