Whether you are a teenage girl or a grown adult woman you have either experienced teenage bullying, or more than likely run into at least one mean girl in your life. In the past, this ‘behaviour’ was seen as more of a rite of passage than something you could manage and change in your life. But times are changing and, as brain-based science evolves, we are learning more and more about the teenage brain and what it does to girls as they enter puberty and adolescence.
Dr. Dan Siegel, in his book, Brainstorm, described what happens in the brain as someone enters adolescence. There are changes that lead to a desire for more independence as well as risk-taking behaviors and a strong need to find groups that you can join. Adolescents are moving away from their parents and into other social groups which drives their strong desire to fit in and be a part of groups. By being a part of a group in adolescence, you feel safe, more confident, and your creativity shines through, until you begin to feel judged, or alienated from the group. Then the opposite happens.
Girls have been conditioned that there is a finite amount of popularity and attention to go around so they begin to fight for it.
This tends to be the core of mean girl behavior. Girls have been conditioned that there is a finite amount of popularity and attention to go around so they begin to fight for it. The underlying need for acceptance drives the behaviour of mean girls, which can lead to teenage bullying. They come across as confident and secure but the reality is that they are often the most insecure in the group, lacking a sense of true self-confidence. Instead, they tend to overcompensate and exude overconfidence by judging and controlling others. Fear of alienation from the group is the sword they wield.
As a parent, how can you help with teenage bullying & ‘mean girl’ behaviour?
First, don’t ignore the problem. It is often uncomfortable for everyone but, by not addressing it you give a kind of permission for it to happen. The best thing you can do is to be an open channel for communication for her. Remember to use open-ended questions when talking and brush up on your active listening skills. More than anything she wants to be heard and feel understood.
Second, don’t try to immediately fix it. Many times, girls need a place to vent and problem solve. For most girls, this involves talking about the problem repeatedly until they are able to find a space of calm and let the problem solving part of their brain take over. I usually will ask, “Do you want my advice / feedback?” This gives girls an opportunity to say yes or no and this will tell you whether she just needed an ear to be supportive or is truly in need of some help problem solving.
…try to use non-judgmental language. This is so important to the process because it allows girls to hear that they are supported without being judged.
Lastly, try to use non-judgmental language. This is so important to the process because it allows girls to hear that they are supported without being judged. Nothing will make a girl clam up faster than a judgmental “Well if you would have…”. Or “I told you to…”. Instead, offer ideas or suggestions and even include your own experiences whenever possible. You would be surprised how much this helps in connecting to her and normalizing the issues in her current situation.
Over the course of writing my book, Marigold Girls, I attempt to give girls some ways to not only understand the behavior of the girls around them (and themselves) but also provide them with some ways to manage their own feelings and behaviors when confronted with these girls. All of the information can fall into one of three core ideas:
1. Understanding and loving yourself
We all have special gifts that we are born with, and discovering them is a way to honor and love who you are as well as those around you. This is not a concept that is normally explicitly taught in families, because, the women were probably never taught it themselves. In order to get girls thinking about this concept you can ask them a few questions:
- What are the things you love to do?
- Besides social media, what is something you do or think about that makes you lose all track of time?
- When you have free time, what is the thing that you usually find yourself doing or wanting to do?
These questions often lead to further conversations and I encourage you to share with her – what you love about her and what you find unique about her as well. Even if she doesn’t look like she is listening… SHE IS! Show her that she is loved and valued, to rise above the teenage bullying and mean behaviour. Learning to love ourselves leads to self-confidence and allows girls to make decisions based on their own beliefs and values instead of following the crowd or “popular girls”.
2. Understanding the relationships around you
We often can be clouded by emotion when we are dealing with people that are close to us, especially in the tween/teen years. Since emotional regulation is evolving, and hormones also creep up to magnify them at times, it is even more important for girls to find ways to understand the relationships around them. By understanding the people around you and what role they play in your life, you are able to see things more objectively; like taking off an emotional blindfold. It allows girls to have a perspective outside of themselves. It helps them to stop personalizing each action and see it objectively.
In order to help facilitate girls thinking around this try asking them some of these questions:
- What are you looking for in a good friend? Does this person give you that?
- What is it about this particular friend that makes you feel like this?
- When a friend does something that is hurtful, ask yourself what message she might be sending you. If you allow her to act this way to you, what message are you sending her about you?
3. Finding ways to be authentic to who you are
This is one of the toughest things to teach tweens/teens because they are just developing their sense of self. The most important thing to remember is to value this process as they move through it. For example, if they embrace a style that is different than yours, let them explore it without forcing your style on them. Experimentation with various things around them from friends, to style, to the way they interact with you is all part of the process of growing up and finding their own way to their authentic self.
…if they embrace a style that is different than yours, let them explore it without forcing your style on them.
Encourage them to keep a journal to jot down ideas, inspirations, style ideas, and feelings as they encounter and experiment with them. I also encourage them to revisit it often and see what they want to carry onto the next pages and what they might let go.
Finding who they are is not always easy and often trying to fit in is crucial, especially because of the brain development of teens (as mentioned above). They are bound to run into people around them that are judgmental and even mean about their choices. In these cases, it is essential for you to help them develop some tools to use to stand with their own decisions. Teaching them the difference between passiveness, aggressiveness and assertiveness is one way to empower them not only to use it themselves but to identify these behaviors in others.
Passiveness involves trying to blend into your surroundings. With passivity, other people often decide what is going to happen and you. You do not use a voice to advocate for what you want or need. Often people feel helpless and tend to take on a victim role with this type of behaviour. It is very common with those experiencing teenage bullying. Some of the behaviours you might see include:
- Difficulty making eye contact
- Agrees with most everyone
- Slumped shoulders
- Apologizes a lot
- Uses “I don’t know”
Aggressiveness involves getting your needs met whatever way necessary, without consideration for the thoughts or feelings of others. It can be physical or verbal and even nonverbal in nature. Think of a person that clenches their fists or jaws when they are talking to you. This is a clear nonverbal sign that they are moving into the aggressive stance and are ready to argue. Some of the other behaviors you might see include:
- Uses body posturing and voice tone to gain power
- Interrupts often
- Uses sarcasm and put downs
- Appears insensitive
- Raises voice or yelling
- Often invades personal space or boundaries
- Argues a lot and is easily triggered by a different opinion
Lastly, we come to the behavior that we want to teach girls to aim for whenever possible…Assertiveness! With assertive behaviour you get your needs met without hurting another person. It is also a very positive way to deal wth teenage bullying and mean girl behaviour. You are able to state your thoughts and feelings in an appropriate yet clear way. You stand up for what you want, need, or believe but still show respect for yourself and others. These behaviors look like:
- Makes eye contact
- Uses a calm voice tone
- Uses active listening skills
- Speaks needs clearly
- Stands tall
It is inevitable that girls will be dealing with teenage bullying, or even be a mean girl at one time in their life, if not more. Teaching them strategies to manage these complicated relationships is a gift we give girls. A gift that will last a lifetime for them. For more detailed information and a 30 day journal for girls, please take a deeper dive into the book Marigold Girls, growing our true selves, and nurturing true friends by understanding the social language of self and others. Visit Dr. Kim Palmiotto’s website for more resources on building confident girls.