One of the biggest issues facing teen girls today is not drug or alcohol abuse, or peer pressure to engage in risky behaviour, nor is it the proliferation of social media and having to look super-model perfect in every “selfie”, instead it’s the damage girls can do to each other in their own friendship groups.
In an article written by Linda Stade for the SMC Education Blog, entitled Girls and Their Frenemies, Stade explores the notion of “relational aggression”, the psychologist’s term for what we refer to as “mean girl” behavior.
We understand as grown women (because we have all been there) that “inclusion” is incredibly important to our social wellbeing, and that as an adolescent we will do anything to remain within the inner circle. We also understand what it feels like to be excluded, and are often left feeling powerless when we see it happening to our own kids.
Stade explains that “girls learn from a very young age that when you create exclusion you create inclusion. And if you can knock someone else off balance emotionally, it defines you as balanced. It is an interesting, if not disturbing, phenomena to watch in a school yard. From the cliques of socially elite ‘it’ girls to the mixed mob of outsiders, there is a power dynamic constantly at play. None of this has anything to do with friendship. Hence the creation of the term ‘frenemies’.”
The author also accurately points out that “Relational aggression is incredibly difficult to manage in a school. It is hard to see, it’s covert, often innocuous looking, and kids will deny it. Groups also work in formation with one another. If a child has been frozen out of one social group, they are unlikely to be accepted by another. It’s like watching a sick game of pinball with a confused hurt child being bounced from one group to another, deflected at every turn until it is their turn to be re-embraced by the ‘friendship group’.”
So what as parents can we do about it? The first thing we can do is model what it looks like to be a genuine friend as an adult. Often, and somewhat frighteningly, it’s from their parents that many teens learn “mean spiritidness” is an acceptable form of behavior. And just because we can be more subtle about it doesn’t mean they aren’t picking up on our social cues.
Stade provides a number of explicit strategies for parents to manage “mean girl” behavior in teens. But the two that stick out the most are simple: 1) explicitly teach kindness, compassion and empathy and (2) explicitly teach emotional intelligence – seek to understand self, and seek to understand others.