Child Caring

No easy fix when girls are mean

Hi Barbara,
My daughter age 12 is in middle school. She is experiencing the wrath of mean girls. She is begging me to home school her. I explained to her that she should not run away from her problems and just ignore these girls, soon enough they will become bored because they aren't getting a response from her. I also assured her if the girls bully her in any way, that I will address the issue with the school. This does not console her. Any other suggestions?

From: Susan, Walnut, CA

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Dear Susan,
Although your answers are technically correct, they wouldn't console me, either. Better to echo her feelings back to her: "I don't blame you for wanting to get away from them; I don't blame you for not wanting to be there." The idea is to validate her judgment -- yes, these are mean girls! -- so that she will know you are on the same page with her. After a while of that, she may be a little more able to hear your solutions. Even then, though, it's better if you can brainstorm with her -- "What ideas do you have?" "Let's figure this out together." -- then for you to tell her what to do.

Dealing with mean girls is not easy -- for the victim or her parents. Or, for that matter, the parents of the perpetrators (if they ever know what's going on), since these social issues can turn on a dime. Knowing why it happens sometimes helps: the need to fit in and gain approval from peers is intense for most girls this age and is often what drives them to exclude someone else simply as a way to make sure they are not excluded themselves.

One easy thing you can do is eyeball your daughter to see if there is something external and easily fixable that might make her a target. Something as mundane as the color of her sneakers, not to mention the brand, can put a girl on the outs, and some girls simply are not tuned in enough to recognize this.

Another fix is to help her to find a new circle of friends. Summer can be a good time for that. Is there someone from her class last year who she'd like to get to know a little better? Someone who shared an interested in x, y or z? Someone from an extra curricular activity? And what about trying a new activity this fall? All it takes is one new friend. She'll probably balk at this, but keep trying. (Do you know any of the moms?) Most victims remain fixated on the excluders. Ask her what makes those girls so special, anyway?

Helping her to build up resistance to these girls by ignoring them is, of course, common sense, but hard to do. See if you can role play with her.

There are two factors that make the mean & nasty stage even more difficult than ever when it hits at your daughter's age. One is that it involves what clinical psychologist Sharon Maxwell of Canton, MA, calls "girls' sexual energy": the realization that being a sexual person gives you social power and that looking a certain way - that is, sexy - helps you to fit in. She's not talking about sexual behavior, rather about perceived sexiness.

The other factor is the proliferation of social media. Cyber bullying is a huge problem that is getting worse, not better, in the middle school years.

Many schools nationwide are using anti-bullying programs as part of their curricula. Find out what's happening in your school and, by all means, talk to someone in the school before the year begins. The school needs to know what's going on in order to be on top of things.

Meanwhile, be grateful your daughter is open about this and do all you can to keep it that way. Girls who keep their victimization to themselves tend to be the ones who have the biggest problems. Keep an eye out for signs of depression -- withdrawal, change in eating or sleeping habits -- and don't hesitate to seek a professional's advice if you see them in your daughter.

Readers, please weigh in on this one! Your advice last week to Anthony, the dad who was already missing his college freshman, was really helpful.