“Any suggestions for my 13-year-old on how to deal with mean girls at school? She has been through several groups of girlfriends and has yet to find someone she can trust. She has one best friend from outside of school, but continues to have problems with the girls at her school.”
-C.R., Albany, California
As a middle school teacher, I see this unfortunate sight every day—girls harassing other girls while more students stand by. At our school we have taken steps to deal with what we call “girl mess.” I suggest that you talk to a teacher your daughter likes and see if she/he has any suggestions. A teacher may know another student who is feeling the same way and can pair them up when they otherwise might not have noticed each other. The school should also be working on creating a more supportive environment for all students. We have, on many occasions, held “girls only” assemblies to discuss how to feel good about yourself without putting others down.
T.C., Sacramento, California
My daughter, 12, also recently experienced some mean-spirited girls in middle school. I suggested that she discuss with me, or her guidance counselor, ways in which she could deal with these incidents. Since I have already experienced similar situations, I was able to provide some insight as to why these things might be happening. I also let her know that it does get better in high school. Guidance counselors are also trained in this field and are well aware of the behavior of children in this age group. Let your daughter know that it’s okay to pop in for a talk with the guidance counselor to discuss these things confidentially.
S.L.H., Syracuse, New York
My daughter is a sixth grader at a very small school (seven girls in her class). Her best friend is in the fifth grade at the same school. The dynamics in my daughter’s class are such that from day to day it’s hard to know who is speaking to whom! I am amazed at how vicious some of these girls can be—and I really think that sometimes they are unaware of how hurtful their words and actions are. I make sure that my daughter knows she is loved for who she is, and that she should focus on the things that make her special, rather than on what others say about her. We plan outings for her and her best friend, and we enroll her in outside activities where she can meet other girls who share her interests. She and I also spend time together, which gives her the chance to talk about what’s going on at school. She still needs to deal with her classmates, of course, but I encourage her not to join in the gossip. I praise her for respecting the feelings of others, and let her know that I trust her to do what’s right. I also use myself as an example—as an adult, I am still friends with people I met in high school and college, but have no contact with anyone from elementary school.
D.P., Ossining, New York
I’m 16, and I can tell you that 13 is the worst age for trusting friends. I remember feeling like the only people I could depend on were one friend from outside of school, my mom, and myself. I finally decided that even though I couldn’t trust my friends at school with my secrets, I could still be civil to them. In the meantime, I kept looking for someone to trust, and kept in touch with my best friend outside of school. Make sure that you are there to talk to your daughter when she needs someone to confide in, and don’t betray her trust. You should also make sure that she understands that the way that these girls are acting is not right, and if she treats them kindly it may pay off someday.
J.W., Lakewood, Colorado
I have 14- and 12-year-old girls, and although the older one’s friends have never been as catty as the younger one’s, there has been no escaping it. The solution? I don’t have one. We all know catty adults, and if we are honest, we all probably engage in some type of catty behavior ourselves under certain circumstances. However, having been through some episodes of secrets that were told by best friends, talking behind people’s backs, etc., I do have some suggestions that might help this woman’s daughter from being burned. First, at this age assume friends are like e-mail—never tell them something that you wouldn’t mind having broadcast. The exception is if you have one very loyal trusting friend who has been with you through thick and thin. This sounds harsh, but until this girl learns that she can trust someone, she should be cautious. Second, the girl shouldn’t dabble in catty behavior and should let people know that it’s not okay to gossip in front of her. This might require some parental intervention, e.g., if you’re carting a bunch of them somewhere and the discussion turns catty about someone not in the vehicle, make some statement such as, “You know, I’m uncomfortable when I hear people talking about other people. Can you please stop?” That gives your daughter a parent-imposed reason to avoid engaging in that behavior and gives her a safe gossip-free zone, at least when you’re around. As the parent, you should also avoid gossiping about co-workers, friends, and family, since it sends a conflicting message about whether this behavior is acceptable. Third, have your daughter define what she means by “catty behavior.” Is it directed at other people, e.g., talking about someone behind that person’s back? Or is it directed at her, e.g., “Ewww. Did you think about that outfit before you put it on?” For stuff directed at her, she should tell the culprit that it hurts her feelings and that she would like her to stop saying/doing that. Finally, urge her to develop a wide and diverse group of friends, so that she is not dependent on one person’s friendship.
E.K., Madison, Wisconsin
Cliques are wonderful, terrible things. When you are in, you are so in, but when you are out, it is devastating. Even if you are in, it is not always a positive thing. Sure you might feel accepted, but you are also fearful of losing your place to someone else. This fear leads to accepting and following what “the leader” says to do—or does. Sometimes this means teasing the other girls who are not part of the group, doing things that are wrong, or squeezing yourself into a mold that doesn’t fit. This is where the freedom of not being accepted comes in. A child who is not accepted is freed to be whoever she chooses to be. I was a girl like that. At first I tried, but it got so they would pretend to accept me and then get me to do something that would get me into trouble. Recess became a time I dreaded. Even when I tried to find a corner where I could read a book and escape, they would follow me, circle around me, throw things, and ask me why I was such a weirdo, why I liked to read and draw. I realize now much of their tormenting arose from fear and jealousy, but of course I didn’t know that then. And it hurt so much that I hated going to school. It wasn’t until high school that I realized how my being different actually made me a better person, more compassionate and likeable than my classmates. In the mass of new faces and new lives in high school, I shone, and those grade school tormentors kind of stood at the sidelines. I guess the moral of all this is that the cliques can make us stronger, though it’s hard to tell a 9-year-old that things will get better. The best thing you can do is to encourage your daughter in those things that make her special. I was in art classes all through elementary school, after school and on weekends, and this fostered in me an unshakable belief in myself.
P.C., Kingston, Ontario