Making a Difference in the Lives of All Young Girls: A special guest post by Michelle Anthony, author of Little Girls Can Be Mean

Here is a guest post by Michelle Anthony, author of the wonderful (and MUST read book) Little Girls Can Be Mean: Four Steps to Bully-Proof Girls in the Early Grades. This is part of my special blog series on stopping bullying and I can’t think of a better person to address the issue with young girls than Michelle.

Those Girls” are Our Girls

All girls can (and will!) be mean—even be bullies—during their elementary school years.  There… I said it.  That’s the elephant in the living room.  Now let’s talk about it.  We all have notions and stereotypes about “those girls:” the ones who start out mean and just get meaner as they get older and more mature.  The middle school girls who taunt and tease, making other girls miserable just for fun, or to increase their own sense of power and popularity.  The girls whose parents have somehow helped foster meanness in their daughters, either because they themselves remain the grown up Mean Girls, or because they overindulged their children or never set appropriate limits when their girls were young.

Those OTHER girls out there, who make (or could make) MY daughter’s life miserable.

But here’s the problem: THOSE girls are OUR girls.

Remember, we are talking about elementary-aged girls here.  And in our work with countless families of K-6th graders, what we have discovered is that not only can and will all girls do mean things, but also that doing so actually serves an important and useful function in their development of social skills, competence, compassion, and empathy!

The “Terrible Twos” of Elementary School

Think about when your child entered The Terrible Twos.  No one likes tantrums.  They’re embarrassing, they’re frustrating, they’re exhausting.  But they are a part of what it means to be 2 and to have so little power and control in your life.  To be a small boat on a large sea.  To be hungry or overtired or overstimulated, and not able to effectively tell anybody that.  And as parents, while we don’t like tantrums, we don’t freak out about them.  We don’t panic that having a tantrum proves that our child is on her way to being a sociopath.  When we see another child having a tantrum, we don’t fold our arms and think to ourselves, “Those parents.  What must they being doing that their child is having a tantrum?” We don’t pat ourselves on the back saying, “MY child would NEVER throw a tantrum! MY child is so well adjusted that she never gets overtired or hungry.  She never feels powerless or alone.  And it’s all a result of my wonderful parenting skills.”

We expect two year olds to have tantrums and as much as we dislike them, we understand them.  And we use them, to check in with our kids and to check in with our parenting: Is my child overprogrammed?  Am I expecting too much of her in this situation?  Did I forget to pack a snack?  Does she need a nap or a snuggle? Does she need to feel more powerful in more situations, and how can I help her do that?

Meanness is the “Terrible Twos” of elementary school, and it affords us the same opportunities that tantrums do—to check in with what our child is needing, and to check in with our own parenting…to help our child grow.

The Developmental Function of Meanness

In general, meanness and bullying at young ages happen because children are trying to have an impact on their world and to feel important to their friends, and they don’t know how to go about it the right way.  Most preschool and elementary-aged children have a hard time holding multiple perspectives, and in trying to be important—to have power—they take actions that seem “mean.”  But, their “mean” actions often stem from the desire to fit in and to find their own power, as opposed to taking purposeful actions to put someone on the outs.  It is true that by 3rd grade (earlier for some), girls’ ability to hold multiple perspectives has advanced, and the intent to harm is more present in some girls, either to exert power in purposefully hurtful ways, or to try to make themselves look good.

However, even then, the root motive is almost always functional: to find and assert their power within meaningful relationships.  Unfortunately, by (ineffectively) trying to find their place, or (unsuccessfully) attempting to be important to someone, they often inadvertently cross the line to aggressiveness or meanness and hurt those they care about.

Rather than punish them or judge them for seeking what we all still seek within healthy relationships, the goal is to recognize and welcome what they are attempting to do, and then guide them to do it more appropriately.

Four Step Plan to Support Targets, Bystanders, and Girls Acting Meanly

Providing support is as simple as 1-2-3-4: Observe, Connect, Guide, and Support Her to Act.  In our book, Little Girls Can Be Mean: Four steps to bully-proof girls in the early grades, we address the most common social struggles girls face in friendship pairs and groups, walking readers through each Step in detail.  The Steps are relevant whether your child is a target, is acting meanly, or is simply a bystander to “girl drama.”

Step 1: Observe your child in new ways and with new eyes, seeking to understand who she is socially

Is she passive?  Aggressive? A self-starter?  Recognize when things go awry: she suddenly stops wanting to do favorite activities, starts more fights with her siblings, complains of headaches, etc.

Step 2: Connect with her, without taking over

Before you step in and try and fix anything, connect over what your child is seeking, feeling, or experiencing.  Ask questions; empathize.  Connect vs. Correct.  Connect vs Direct.  This is especially hard (but especially important!) if your child has been mean. If your child is the target: “It must be hard to have your best friend exclude you.  What were you feeling when that happened?”  If your child is acting meanly: “I can see your friendship with Sasha is important, even though that means you have to ignore and exclude other girls.  What makes that friendship so special?”  Understanding the underlying feeling or motive will allow you to help your daughter manage those emotions or meet those needs in more positive, beneficial ways.

Step 3: Guide her, as a teammate

Work together to come up with all possible solutions, whittling down the list to choices doable to you both (e.g., if she decides she wants to be more assertive, do Role Plays to help her do so without slipping into meanness herself). Include choices that allow her to deal with her feelings (e.g., ways to empower her when she feels excluded) or meet those natural developmental drives (e.g., acknowledge it’s wonderful to value a friend, but how she displays loyalty needs to change).  Your role is important in helping your child learn ways to assert herself effectively and in defining your limits around what’s acceptable.  See below for two sample activities on how to do this.

Step 4: Support Her to Act on one or two of the solutions

Remember, she chooses her actions and follows through, not you.  It might be private (e.g., doing a role play for how to interface with her friend) or public (e.g., making a friendship bracelet to reach out to a child she has wronged).

By understanding the developmental function of early meanness, and utilizing the Four Steps to help your daughter meet her needs in kind and appropriate ways, you are in the best position to empower your daughter to effectively stand up for herself, and to shape her social development as she matures into an empathetic, compassionate mature young woman.  Whether your child is a Target, witness, or acting meanly, using the Four Step plan allows the two of you to remain a team, and for you to be a source of support, knowledge, and guidance in helping your child develop her power and influence in kind, productive, and appropriate ways.

Activities to Try with Your Daughter

Below are two activities for you to do with your own daughter.  For many additional tools and strategies, check out the ideas and activities in Little Girls Can Be Mean: Four steps to bully-proof girls in the early grades.

If your child is “stuck” in a negative friendship:  The Power to See

Girls often remain in friendships that are no longer a good fit, simply because they cannot fully “see” the negative pull that has taken over the relationship.  Get two clear jars and some marbles to help your child see for herself how she feels about her friendship:

  • Have your daughter label one jar “good feelings” and the other jar “bad feelings.”
  • Over the next week or two, when your child gets home from school, have her drop a marble in the “good feelings” jar every time over the course of that day she had a positive interaction with her friend, or her friend made her feel good or did something kind.
  • Have her drop a marble in the “bad feelings” jar every time over the course of that day she had a negative interaction with her friend, or her friend made her feel bad or did something unkind.
  • At the end of the week or two, examine the jars together.  Based on your child’s own observations, how does she feel the relationship is going, overall?

If your child has been mean: Erasing the Hurt

Girls often act without realizing the impact their action or words can have on others.  You can make this idea visual and concrete with this simple activity:

  • With a dark pencil, have your child write the words “hurt feelings” in large letters on a piece of paper.  Point out that when people say mean things to people, it leaves them with hurt feelings.
  • Ask her if those words will erase themselves if left there for a long time (no).  Ask her, “How can we erase these hurt feelings?” She will likely say, “By using an eraser.”  You can agree by saying, “Yes, the ‘eraser’ we can use to help get rid of these hurt feelings is to accept responsibility and do something to make it better, like say we’re sorry: ‘I’m sorry I hurt your feelings.’”
  • Erase the words, noticing together how, even when you try to erase the hurt feelings, they are still there, even though they look lighter.  Explain to her that even when you try to erase mean behavior (by apologizing, for example), some of the other person’s hurt feelings still remain.
  • You may also choose to write specific emotions, like “sad,” or “embarrassed,” as opposed to the words “hurt feelings.”

Michelle Anthony, MA, PhD is co-author of the newly released Little Girls Can Be Mean: Four steps to bully-proof girls in the early grades.  She is an expert in developmental psychology, mother to three young children, and certified teacher.  She is co-founder Wide-Eyed Learning, a company devoted to facilitating communication and learning between parents and children.  Follow her on Twitter @michelleanthon.

You might also be interested in reading these articles about “mean little girls” in which Michelle is quoted:

“The Playground Gets Even Tougher” by Pamela Paula The New York Times

“How to Bully-Proof Young Girls,” by Andrea Sachs, Time