We used to see “mean girl” behaviour happening more in the upper elementary grades but now notice it occurs as early as preschool classrooms. In a recent parenting workshop I conducted, a parent asked me, “Am I crazy or is this little girl already behaving like a ‘mean girl’ at age four!?”

Unfortunately I am hearing about harsh behaviour happening in very young girls. One question that I often think about is: WHY are young girls (and older ones, too) acting out in this negative way towards others?

To tackle this question, I sometimes think of who I was in my youth. When I reflect back on my own life, I am embarrassed to admit that there was a time when I was in my late teens and twenties that I was quite unpleasant. It hurts me to think back at those years, but it has been important in my life to face who I was back then in order to truly be the best I can be now.

These time-travel trips into my past reveal a period of time where I didn’t feel connected with anyone. I was a socially awkward, unstylish, immature teen who struggled to make friends. There were people around me, but for some reason, I didn’t open up with anyone about all the challenges I was experiencing, which included bullying by older girls. I wanted so desperately to be included and fit in, but I didn’t know how to be the kind of person that others would want to include.

Some of my friends have teenaged-girls (I have boys) and I marvel at how deeply they try to be present for their daughters and how they talk with them. Just the other weekend I watched my dear friend show her daughter over and over that she really mattered. I could tell as I watched her that my heart remembered being that age and wishing I had more courage to tell someone how I was doing.

As I got older, it seems to me that I turned that loneliness and lack of feeling understood into anger. I could be really sharp with others, trying to win power struggles. I hope that anyone I was hard on has been able to forgive me.

The upside to these life experiences and working to change this dynamic in life has been that I now I am better able connect very deeply with children and teenagers. I’ve been able to turn my stressful youth into a skill-set within my psychotherapy practice that includes being able to identify what the messages are when two people are having a tough time with each other. So I suppose I should be thankful for all those tricky years.

In my role now as a Head of School at Infinity School, knowing how to connect with girls (and boys, too!) to help them feel understood and important is critical now more than ever.

I am grateful to one of my parenting-writing colleagues, Katie Hurley, LCSW who just released the book, No More Mean Girls. Not even getting through the introduction, I was nodding in agreement as she explained that many young girls experience a “self-esteem crisis.” In addition to that revelation, when I read these words, “… young girls (think preschoolers on up) are struggling with these sophisticated ‘big girl’ problems without the necessary skills to cope,” I was saying out loud, “BINGO!”

It is essential that adults who interact with girls know how to help them work through their obstacles, creating a unified approach to building each other up. We have to convince girls that pushing each other down in order to succeed and fighting for social status isn’t necessary.

I just read that last sentence back, my mind drawn to what I see happening out in the mom-sphere of parenting writing. I don’t look at the comments in articles at all because it is amazing to me that moms will so easily throw each other under the bus. I can’t believe how hard some mothers will be on another. Perhaps it isn’t just young girls who need to believe that they don’t need to bring each other down to feel special.

We need to coach girls to change the stories they are telling themselves about what they need to feel successful and also what others perceive of them. When I witness girls lashing out at others, it is common to see they suddenly got mad because they feel compromised in some way, that they weren’t given time to explain themselves, or that they feel de-valued. There are certainly other reasons for those moments when girls are so overcome with their emotions that they can’t make themselves be friendly.

Recently I saw a young girl charge at a boy with a fierce look on her face. When I asked her what happened just before that trigger of outrage, she cried, telling me he didn’t let her finish her sentences – she didn’t have had the opportunity to explain herself.

When I think back to my own “mean girl” period (actually it was more like “mean twenty-something”), I can relate to how this young girl felt. Thankfully we have people like Katie Hurley, through her psychotherapy practice, her books, and Girls Can! initiative being champions for girls around the world. The photo at the top of this article is from the Girls Can! Facebook page. 

I like her approach to helping the girls of the world through steps like these ones:

developing resiliency, integrity, and empathy, learning friendship-making strategies, cultivating social-emotional skills and finding courage to stand up, stopping aggression, increasing self-esteem, growing self-regulation, developing communication skills, and finding one’s passion in life.

That is a super list of skills for any child and parent to have to equip our kids to be the best they can be.