Little Girls Can Be Mean: Four Steps to Bully-proof Girls in the Early Grades

Little Girls Can Be Mean: Four Steps to Bully-proof Girls in the Early Grades
Little Girls Can Be Mean
A special thanks to Michelle Anthony, PhD, for the following post about little girls and bullying.  Anyone who parents a young daughter knows that bullying is starting at younger and younger ages.  Dr. Anthony sheds some light on why this happens and how we can help.  This book provides a whole new framework for viewing and intervening in bully situations with our girls.  Wendy Young, LMSW, BCD, Spin-Doctor Parenting

By Michelle Anthony MA, PhD

I read an article recently about preschool bullies. It made me uncomfortable. Not because I don’t believe very young children can do very mean things. I know they can. And not because I don’t believe there may be an out-and-out bully who is 4 years old. I do. But such extreme cases are the exception not the rule.

In general, meanness and bullying at these young ages happens because children are trying to have an impact on their world and to feel important to their friends, and don’t know how to go about it the right way. But when we label these children “bullies” or “mean girls,” we circumscribe who they are at horrifyingly young ages. We judge and criticize them and their families, and we only accentuate the problem we are striving to fix. The reality is, meanness happens because—developmentally speaking—it is a necessary way for young children to learn how to be nice, if they are given the appropriate tools and guidance early on.

Why Meanness Happens

Most preschool and elementary-aged children have a hard time holding multiple perspectives, and in trying to be important—to have power—they often take actions that seem “mean.” But, their “mean” actions often stem from the desire to fit in, 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, it is vital that parents and educators realize that a majority of the mean behavior in elementary school (and preschool) comes from good or nice girls who are simply trying to fit in and belong, making mistakes along the way. 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. Understanding the how and why of meanness—and having a simple coherent plan for how to deal with it—allows parents to support their child and help her respond more effectively.

How Can I Help My Daughter?

Because much of the “everyday” meanness happens between close friends, girls are often hesitant to talk to parents and teachers, in part because we often brush off social struggles, saying, “She’s a bully, don’t be friends with her,” or, “Ignore her; play with someone else,” or “Girls are just mean sometimes.” Thus, in trying to help, we unwittingly isolate girls from the very support network they need and deserve.

But, providing support is as simple as 1-2-3-4: Observe, Connect, Guide, and Support 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. Ask questions; empathize. Connect vs. Correct. Connect vs Direct. This is especially hard (but especially important!) if your child has been mean.

Step 3: Guide her, as a teammate. Work together to try out 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).

Step 4: Support Her to Act on one or two of the solutions. Remember, she chooses her actions and follows through, not you. Because you will not control how peers respond, follow up with the four Steps again, observing what happens, reconnecting over how she now feels, and working together as you guide her to new choices she can then act on.

While not every social situation warrants all Four Steps, Observing and Connecting often will allow you to see patterns, notice your child is unhappy, and solidify your partnership. In applying the Four Steps, caring parents, teachers, and counselors learn a variety of tools and strategies that give the girls they love a simple productive way to respond to the inevitable struggles every girl faces as she enters (and sometimes gets excluded by) the world of groups,clubs, and best friends.

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.


Anonymous said…
We recently experienced this type of "mean girl behavior" this past weekend when my daughter had friends spend the weekend. It was eye-opening to see how the friends spoke to and about my daughter.

Most interesting (and alarming to me & my spouse) was how she passively (not her normals style of interaction) allowed it without understanding that it was not acceptable. We will be working on healthy self esteem building.

I did speak to all three girls about carefully choosing words when speaking to one another making them aware of the fact that words can build up relationships or tear them down.

Children (and many adults) need to be made aware of how their words and actions affect others. Sometimes people are un-aware of how those things can influence other people. Blessings to you on a great article!

Thank you for sharing your (and your daughter's) experience. We need to continue to keep the dialogue open about the issue of relational bullying. It certainly won't go away on it's own. If you haven't seen "Little Girls Can Be Mean", I highly recommend you find a copy to read. It can make all the difference for girls who are bullied and for those who do the bullying. Kids need our guidance and support to develop healthy relationships.

Wendy =)
Anonymous said…
Wendy...I have not seen a copy. I will do my best to get my hands on one soon. Thanks for all you do educating! :)
My pleasure...and I am blessed to be in the company of so many who are doing great work on behalf of our children!

Wendy =)
Melissa Taylor said…
I just met Michelle and listened to her speak - she blew me away! I felt like I finally "got" how to help my daughter! This is required reading for all teachers and parents of girls!

I is a phenomenal book, with such useable information! How lucky that you got to meet Michelle and hear her speak! Thanks for dropping by!


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