Your child can point them out on the elementary school playground or by the lockers at middle or high school: groups of girls tightly hanging together, the all-powerful cliques. Perhaps they’re whispering or looking down their noses at other girls. Or they’re madly sending nasty text messages or leaving anonymous commentaries on Web sites like MySpace or Facebook. You may be wondering how they can be so mean. Where does this behavior come from? What can your school do about it? And what can parents do?

From bullying to relational aggression

Kids have been behaving badly toward other kids for a long time. But in today’s world, peer groups have more influence than ever before, and technology makes it easier for children to be anonymous and more widespread in their cruelty.

First it was all about the boys and the bullies. Media attention focused on bullying and how to stop stronger boys from physically attacking the weaker ones. Schools developed anti-bullying campaigns and character-education programs to combat the behavior.

In recent years, the attention has turned to adolescent girls and to what psychologists call “relational aggression,” or the kind of behavior depicted in the film Mean Girls. These girls’ cliques spread rumors and lies, exclude and sometimes show outright physical aggression toward other girls. Their targets are usually girls who haven’t yet started developing physically, who dress differently than others, or who just don’t fit in.

What is relational aggression?

Counselors who work with girls tell horrifying stories of girls’ cliques and their behavior toward other girls:

  • Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bees and Wannabes (the book Mean Girls was based on), describes a ninth-grade girl who feared for her life. It all began when she started receiving anonymous threatening text messages from girls at another school warning her that she would be physically harmed because she dared to like a boy at their school.
  • Julia Taylor, another school counselor and author, describes a girl who was terrorized by a clique — girls she thought were her friends. They shoved crumbled-up peanut butter cookies in her face and asked her to smell them, knowing she was allergic to peanut products. When her mother complained to the school, the administrator’s reaction was “Oh, they probably didn’t know she was allergic.”
  • A mother of an 11-year-old writes in to GreatSchools complaining that girls are teasing her sensitive daughter because she hasn’t developed. They taunt her with comments like “You’re flat as a board.”

Alexandra Sabina Bender, a 12-year-old Connecticut girl, was so appalled by the destructive power of cliques she witnessed firsthand that she decided to write a book titled When There’s a Clique, You’ve Got to Think Quick to teach understanding and tolerance to her peers. The most important lesson she wants girls to learn? “We don’t have to be friends, but we don’t have to be enemies either,” she says.

Where does it come from, and why do they do it?

The destructive behavior can start as early as preschool but tends to be most pronounced in early adolescence. In Queen Bees and Wannabes, Wiseman, describes the clique as a life raft for adolescent girls. “Imagine you and your daughter on a cruise ship,” she writes. “Girls start telling each other the ship is stupid and boring and it’s time to get off. As you watch helplessly, she leaves behind everything that is safe and secure, gets into a life raft with people who have little in common with her except their age, and drifts away.”

Once she’s on the raft, she’s too far away from you and realizes her survival depends on bonding with the other girls in the raft. She’s desperately afraid of being cast out. Wiseman uses this analogy to show the fear girls have and how they feel forced to act a certain way to be accepted by their peers.

“Cliques are self-reinforcing,” writes Wiseman. “As soon as you define your role and group, you perceive others as outsiders. It’s harder to put yourself in their shoes, and it’s therefore easier to be cruel to them or watch and do nothing.”

Of course, not all girls are nasty and belong to cliques. But whether or not they are “in” or “out,” all girls will be affected by the actions of cliques because these behaviors are all around them. They need to understand how this social pecking order works, how they can act differently in their relationships and rise above it.

Technology makes the problem worse

Many parents downplay the problem of cliques, says Wiseman, and think, “Oh well, it’s not a big deal. We had these problems when we were growing up.” But Wiseman counters that it is a much bigger problem now. “We didn’t have the Internet and cell phones when we were growing up,” she notes. “We didn’t have text messaging, instant messaging and MySpace.” Technology makes it easy for kids to be anonymous in their meanness, and spread rumors and gossip like wildfire far beyond the school grounds.

Julia Taylor, a school counselor in Raleigh, North Carolina, and author of Salvaging Sisterhood and Girls in Real Life Situations, two curriculum guides for middle and high school girls, is equally concerned. “With the Internet and cell phones, with one click, they can ruin lives. And with the ease of use, they don’t realize what they are doing, and they can’t take it back.”

What can schools do?

With increased demands on schools to increase test scores and improve student achievement, it’s no wonder that behavior issues may take a back seat. But as far as Wiseman is concerned, there should be no excuses. “We need to create safe schools and deal with problems at the beginning rather than waiting,” she says. “We can’t act shocked and amazed that these behaviors happen with so-called nice kids at school.”

Stan Davis, author of Schools Where Everyone Belongs, believes that schools need to provide a “safe and affirming school climate” for both boys and girls characterized by:

  • Consequences for aggression that are inevitable, predictable and escalating
  • Positive feedback to students, and a positive feeling and tone
  • A staff who spend time with students, especially students at risk

Schools can work at changing their culture bit by bit, says Davis. “School staff need to believe that it is their job to forge genuine relationships with students. They can set a goal that each student should have a positive relationship with at least two staff members. In that way, the staff members model the behavior that everyone here is important and students get a clear message.” He believes that when staff members discipline students for acts of aggression, the consequences they employ work better in the context of meaningful staff-student relationships.

In her work with girls, Wiseman found that many girls think all adults are clueless about what goes on in girl relationships. She works at getting them to understand that there are adults they can turn to. She advises girls in her support program to seek out at least one adult who can be their advocate. She teaches girls how to interview and identify which adults they can feel comfortable with, and then seek them out in time of trouble.

Teach kids to reflect on what they did

“Just like we need to teach kids math, we also need to teach them conscience development,” says Davis. If a student engages in verbal or physically aggressive behavior, one of the techniques he advocates is to have the student write down what she did and why.

“It’s very important to teach kids not to make the same dumb mistakes over and over,” he says. “We always have choices and what we do may not be intentional but the student needs to know what she did and why it’s a problem. She can think about why it was wrong and how she hurt the other person. Suddenly a light goes on and she’ll say, ‘Yeah, I see I did this. What was I aiming for when I did this? Was I trying to get the approval of a friend or was I bugged by something?'”

Davis says the role of the teacher or counselor is to help the student construct another plan for the next time she has that kind of feeling. Kids can change their behavior patterns and if there are clear consequences, they also know that they will get in trouble again if they don’t. Davis believes that apologizing isn’t as important as helping the student figure out how to act the next time.

What can parents do?

How parents behave makes a difference.

The first thing parents can do is recognize that what they say and how they treat other adults and children has an enormous influence on how their own children behave. “Every Queen Bee girl or Dominator Boy is hatched from a hive,” writes Wiseman in her follow-up book, Queen Bee Moms and Kingpin Dads. “The first lessons our children learn in creating their own social hierarchies are the ones they glean from us and the culture at large. The first step toward helping our kids cope with bullying in any form is recognizing the degree to which we’re still immersed in those same battles for power.”

Why are girls mean to each other? Very often it’s because they’ve seen this behavior at home. Have you been known to say nasty things about your mother-in-law, the neighbor next door, or your child’s teacher? Careful — your daughter is listening and assuming that kind of behavior is OK because she has seen you do it. “If parents aren’t educated about their own behavior, it’s not going to work trying to change their daughter’s behavior,” says Taylor.

Realize that it’s not just other children who behave this way.

As children start to drift away in middle school, they are less likely to tell their parents everything that happens at school. Many parents are surprised when they hear about the mean behavior of cliques because their daughters haven’t volunteered the information. And they may be even more surprised when they find out their own daughters are playing a role.

Stay engaged with your child.

Have discussions with your daughter about what’s happening at school, Wiseman advises. Start with a general question by asking your daughter about her opinion of cliques rather than her personal experience with them. Once she has opened up about what she sees, she’ll be more likely to share her own experience.

Avoid the temptation to fix the problem.

“Don’t tell her what to do,” Wiseman writes in Queen Bees and Wannabes,” “Instead, describe the behavior you respect. Work with her as she comes up with a plan that describes specifically what she wants to happen differently, and how she can make that happen.”

Kathy Masarie, a pediatrician, counselor and creator of the support program, Full Esteem Ahead, in Portland, Oregon, says, “The best lesson a parent can teach is that your life is a result of your choices. Let kids know that there are consequences for their actions and for what they say.”

Keep an eye on Internet and cell phone activity.

Keep the computer in public view at home, such as the family room or kitchen, Davis advises, so you can see what sites your child is frequenting and keep tabs on her activity. Have discussions about what is acceptable behavior on social networking Web sites and text messaging, and know what online activities you child is involved in. Let your child know that using these technological tools is a privilege and don’t hesitate to take them away if they are not used properly.

Working with your school

“It’s hard to convince school officials that these issues in girls’ behavior are important but parents need to remind schools that they’re legally responsible for school safety and the emotional safety of their children,” says Annette Klinefelter, director of Girls Inc. in northwest Oregon.

Parents need to band together.

“If we all got on board, we could stop bullying,” says Masarie. “Bystanders have the power to stop bullying. Parents working together can push for a persistent dedicated task force at the school to address these issues. Prevention is the key.” This kind of behavior is always going to be there, she notes, but if you are alert you can catch it and stop it at an early stage rather than reacting once it gets out of hand.

Does your school have a counseling program? Are there workshops available for girls? Parents can work together to build awareness about the problems of cliques at school. Encourage your PTA or PTO to bring in workshops and guest speakers on the subject for parents and students. Encourage your school to provide staff training on this issue.

Be proactive with teachers, counselors, and administrators.

When your child is a victim of an ugly incident at school — called names, harassed or bullied on the playground — your first instinct might be to storm into the principal’s office and demand that something be done. But Wiseman advises that it’s best to get control of your emotions and be calm. Otherwise you’ll be dismissed as “another one of those crazed parents.” Just as students should make a point of seeking out advocates at school before trouble happens, so should parents. Then, if and when an issue arises, the counselor or principal will already have a positive frame of reference of you as a parent and will be more likely to take the situation seriously.

Davis advises parents to calmly approach the principal and ask if the specific behavior you are concerned about is allowed at the school. If the answer is no, then ask what the consequences are. Follow up. Document and date your concerns and the conversation you had in writing. That way if there is no follow-up, you will have factual information to fall back on and if you need to, take your concerns to the next level of administration.

Helpful books

  • Queen Bees and Wannabes by Rosalind Wiseman (Three Rivers Press, 2002)
  • Queen Bee Moms and Kingpin Dads by Rosalind Wiseman (Crown Publishers, 2006)
  • Salvaging Sisterhood by Julia Taylor (Youthlight, Inc.)
  • Girls in Real Life Situations by Julia Taylor and Shannon Trice-Black (Research Press, 2007)
  • Schools Where Everyone Belongs by Stan Davis (Research Press, 2007)
  • When There’s a Clique, You’ve Got to Think Quick by Alexandra Sabina Bender (Crown House Publishing Limited, 2007)
  • Mean Girls: Facing Your Beauty Turned Beast by Hayley DiMarco (Revell, 2004)
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