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The Mean Girl Phenomenon; Understanding Relational Aggression

When we are disconnected from ourselves, and our emotions and true needs, we can become narcissistic and oblivious to our impact on others; it doesn’t enter our consciousness to even consider that we need to be adult, reasonable, enquiring, and celebrate difference.

Katie Hurley, Author

No More Mean Girls:

The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls

By Deb Landry

Over the past few months, I have been inundated with mean girl issues and when I say mean girl I mean, mean females. I can’t believe the situations that have consulted on this year in business, schools, programs and socially. Why do girls and women think they can say and do anything at the expense of another person and with the intention of damaging their careers, business, friendships, experiences and most of all their self-esteem?

The answers are not simple and no comfort when it is happening to you. As a parenting coach specializing in character education and bullying prevention, I see it every day. It’s always the same, just different people. I could fill a book with stories of how character attacks has become the norm for today’s female that thinks it is fair game to lie and manipulation, and when that doesn’t work, they take it one destructively step further. It is unfortunate that time is spent on reactiveness, deceit and belittling of others instead of on helping and supporting and self-care. Kindness and respect are being used as buzz words instead of character traits.

This mean girl behavior, known as relational aggression, is a survival tactic for people who are insecure, immature, jealous, egotistical, and yes, narcissistic. It is a learned behavior andan insidious type of bullying used that often goes unnoticed by parents, educators and even society in general. One of the problems is, the people you least expect it from, fall into this category.

Tweens, teens and young adults that participate in relational aggression are often able to manipulate others and it go undetected by society. In fact, some are so cunning, that no one would ever suspect them of hurting others and sometimes very shocked by it. You know that person, the one that smiles, is overly nice to you, listens to all your problems and then stabs you in the back by using it against you.

Where do they learn this and why do they engage in such negative behavior? Girls gossip and speak negatively about others because that is what they see adult women doing, pure and simple. Young girls learn it from social media, television, movies, an older sister, their mother or even a group of teachers or adults. They hear it in school, grocery stores, kitchens and even at church. Girls model their behavior on what they see and hear, not on what they are taught.

Research shows that one of the top reasons’ girls engage in relational aggression is to establish or maintain their social status. Girls will use relational aggression to socially isolate someone while increasing their own social status. They also do this to protect their reputation or get the jump on someone else. They collect the data they need and use it when it most fits their needs. As I mentioned previously, this behavior including everything from jealousy, envy, attention seeking, justification of being caught doing something they shouldn’t, fear, and the list goes on. These girls thrive on the gossip and stories they viciously tell. In fact, girls will knowingly create this excitement just because they love the perceived attention. They like the superficial power of bringing down their competition with a juicy story that might ruin another person's reputation. Relational aggression stems from low self-esteem and lack of accountability.

Overall, females tend to be more aggressive than males with this behavior, especially during middle school through early adulthood. Relational aggression is often referred to as emotional bullying or the mean girl phenomenonand involves social manipulation in the following areas:

  1. excluding people from a group intentionally

  2. spreading rumors,

  3. engaging in gossip, lies and half-truths,

  4. derogatory comments

  5. breaking confidences or sharing secrets

  6. recruiting others to dislike a victim

  7. talking badly about others

  8. backstabbing one anothermaking fun of others for who they are, especially if they can’t change it

  9. leaving destructive or mean messages on cell phones, social media post, blogs, etc.

  10. online shaming which is cyberbullying

  11. intimidation

  12. establishing rules for anyone who wants to be part of the social group

  13. forming cliques, which include like-minded people

  14. peer pressure to get others to participate or using others weaknesses to recruit them to their way of belief

It’s not uncommon for adults to miscalculate or underestimate the impact inappropriate bullying behaviors. Some of the symptoms and feelings that your child may be a victim of relational aggression often include:

  1. Feelings of rejection

  2. Lack of Confidence

  3. Feeling inadequate, unattractive, rejected or snubbed by others

  4. Shows signs of depression or is withdrawn

  5. Thoughts of Suicide

  6. Develops low self-esteem

  7. Experiences disorders such as eating, sleeping, cutting, drugs, alcohol

  8. Has problems studying or grades decline

Note: If you notice any of these characteristics or other abnormalities in your child you should talk with their doctor, school counselor or consult a professional immediately.

How do we stop this behavior and what do we do to stop this phenomenon?

First and foremost,

· Listen to your child, watch and talk with them daily about their day

· Encourage them, be patient and empathetic to their feelings

· Tell them to walk away and ignore the bully or bad behavior, don’t engage with them, (but parents should never ignore what is happening)

· Tell them to STOP

· Report it to an adult they can trust; know the difference between tattling and telling

· Explain what bullying is: (repetitive, intentional, and imbalance of power)

· Parents and educators should immediately intervein and address the behavior with the bully.

Here are some research-based principles that I found on It is a great sight for mothers and daughters that has a newsletter. I also highly suggestion the book mentioned at the beginning of the blog No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls:

Meanness is often a mask for insecurity. It is not uncommon for mean girl behavior to be motivated by jealousy or attention from the opposite sex. Victims who are more attractive are perceived as a threat. Victims who are less attractive are seen as an easy target. According to Kaye Randall, author of Mean Girls: 101 1/2 Creative Strategies for Working with Relational Aggression, meanness may also be related to narcissism, a personality trait that has been shown to lead to aggressive behavior in the face of ego threats. Narcissists may seem confident on the surface, but they tend to have deeper insecurities. This disconnect is reflected in research showing that narcissists tend to report high explicit self-esteem but exhibit low implicit self-esteem.

Popularity does not necessarily lead to meanness. Although it may be difficult to dismantle a school’s elaborate social hierarchies, the least we can do is try to encourage pro-social values in those who hold power. A powerful girl’s disapproval of her peers’ mean behavior may be especially likely to change it. For this reason, anti-bullying experts like Rosalind Wiseman believe it is important to work directly with the queen bees as well as their victims, although the former tend to be more resistant to intervention.

The school environment can breed meanness (or at least do little to prevent it). It’s often hard for teachers and staff to know what’s going on, especially with the recent surge in cyberbullying, or know how to properly intervene. Some teachers try to help but aren’t taken seriously, while others are either indifferent, out of touch or themselves intimidated by bullies. School culture itself is not always conducive to cooperation and inclusivity. Many schools divide students into different trajectories early on based on apparent ability, and the common curve- based grading system can further fuel competition. Research by Dr. Gary Namie, a psychologist and cofounder of the Workplace Bullying Institute, a Washington state-based nonprofit, suggests that certain work environments are similarly meanness-breeding: Meanness can become a survival tactic, especially for women in male-dominated arenas.

We are all mean girls at times. Mean girls would have little power if it weren’t for their enablers — that is, the rest of us. Girls have a powerful psychological need to belong and be accepted by social groups, especially at that vulnerable age when our moral capacities and self-confidence are less well-developed. But exclusion is also common among adults. A new study suggests that when faced with the threat of exclusion by two other women, women are more likely than men to respond by forming an alliance and excluding one of the other women. The researchers believe that this tendency is due to women’s stronger reliance on one-on-one bonds, whereas men tend to be more concerned with their status in a group. But as we know all too well, both genders are guilty of forming exclusive us vs. the boundaries, a tendency that can lead to discrimination, dehumanization and in its more extreme forms, murder and genocide. From this perspective, middle school meanness is just a smaller-scale version of a larger human problem.

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Awesome article. Thank You.

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