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These days, the stereotype of the pretty, popular mean girl shows up in nearly every movie or TV series about surviving the social experiment known as high school. There’s always a manipulative, conniving character who may or may not have a clear reason for behaving the way she does. But why are teenage girls so mean, really? There’s a complex web of insecurity, anxiety, and conditioned attitudes that underlies the mean girl stereotype.
Like other forms of bullying, mean girl behaviors play out in spaces and situations where there is little or no adult supervision. However, parents and teachers who are on the lookout can usually observe the effects on both perpetrators and victims. Some of the signs are a sudden change in friend groups, a girlcrying in her roomall the time, or a steep decline in a teen’s grades.
Whether girls are on the receiving end of these teen social pattern—or setting them in motion—parents need to take steps to protect and support their daughters. Understanding why girls are so mean to each other can help adults be more compassionate. It’s also important for parents to assist girls in uncovering and addressing the root causes of these behaviors.
Mean Girl Psychology and Relational Aggression
One of the best-known movies about the specific ways that teen girls bully each other isMean Girls, starring Lindsay Lohan. The 2004 film is actually based on a nonfiction book about mean girl psychology:Queen Bees and Wannabees, by Rosalind Wiseman. Wiseman and other researchers pinpointed teen girl behavior that hinges on exclusion, backstabbing, and manipulation. They describe these forms of bullying asrelational aggression. It’s a very different form of aggression than the physical bullying and name-calling that takes place among boys.
While relationship aggression can be directed at people outside a girl’s friend group, it appears to bemore commonwithin intimate teen girl friendships—leading to the term “frenemies.” That’s why parents often worry because “my teenage daughter is mean to her friends.”
Examples of Mean Girl Behaviors
Relational aggression can take the form of the following mean girl behaviors:
- Intentionally excludingpeersfromafriend group or clique
- Spreadingrumors and gossip
- Sharing with one friend something negative that a mutual friend said about her
- Making negative comments that can be passed off as “trying to help”
- Sharingsomeone’s secrets in order to embarrass or expose them
- Getting others to turn against a victim
- Cyberbullying, including mean texts and social media posts, or posting photos of get-togethers where some people were left out
- Slut-shaming—stigmatizing girls based on their way of dressing or perceived or actual sexual behavior
- Establishing “rules” for being in a friend group—such as what they should wear or how they should act—and using peer pressure to get other girls to follow the rules.
Why Are Girls So Mean to Each Other?
The answer to the question “Why are teenage girls so mean?” is complicated and multifaceted. The way girls are conditioned to act in society is one significant factor. Much of mean girl behavior can be attributed to social conditioning that teaches girls to “be nice” andnot to show difficult emotionslike anger. As a result, girls don’t learn how to directly address conflict or hurt feelings within friendships. The natural emotions of anger and hurt are distorted into passive-aggressive comments or badmouthing other girls behind their backs.
At the same time, girls also get the message as they grow up that it’s extremely important to belong and to make friends. Recent research shows that tween and teen girls tend to focusmore on intimacy and support in friendships, while boys focus more on shared activities. The high value girls place on friendship can result in an intense fear of rejection and isolation. That fear is part of why teenage girls are so mean. Becausefriendships are so important to girls, they understand how to wield them as weapons.
In order to ensure their place in the social hierarchy, mean girls set up a power structure in which others will be pushed out of the friend group if they don’t do things the “right” way.Withdrawing their friendshipfrom someone they’re angry with, or subverting others’ friendships, is a powerful and effective punishment. A mean girl may use these tactics to gain social status and popularity, or to make sure they remain at the center of a protective clique. That’s where the “queen bee” or Alpha Girl concept comes from.
More Reasons Why Girls Are So Mean
In addition to the reasons explained above, here are some other factors that contribute to why girls are so mean to each other.
- Low self-esteem,particularly prevalent in teen girls, causing them to put others down in an attempt to feel better about themselves
- Jealousy and envy of other’s abilities or friendships
- A desire to feel in control, during a stage of life when girls often feel that they can’t control what’s happening in their bodies and their lives
- Immature social skills—not knowing how to navigate friendships
- Narcissistic tendencies, which can manifest as aggression when the person’s ego is threatened
- Trying to get attention when they’re feeling isolated,lonely, or that no one cares about them.
The Mental Health Impact of Mean Girl Behavior
Relational aggression has a negative impact on the mental health of both the perpetrators of mean girl behaviors and those they victimize. For victims, the experience of being rejected and insulted by someone in their friend circle can lead to low self-esteem, lack of confidence, and difficulty trusting others. Because adolescence is already a vulnerable period, when teens are struggling to build identity, this type of bullying can leave them feeling inadequate, unattractive, and not worthy of being liked or loved. And these feelings can last for years, even into adulthood.
Particularly when girls are already at risk for mental health issues, relational aggression can catalyzeanxiety,depression, suicidal thoughts,self-harm, eating disorders, and/or substance abuse. And even girls who are not the objects of mean girl behavior are affected. Watching what happens to their peers can cause them to retreat from friendships and stop expressing their opinions, to avoid becoming the next victim.
But teens who utilize mean girl tacticsalso sufferas a result of their behavior. Using control and manipulation to get their needs met can stunt their social and emotional development. Moreover, mean girls often feel that no one can see who they really are inside. They wonder whether they’re popular because of who they are, or because their peers are afraid of going against them. As with victims, this lack of trust can impair their ability to formauthentic connectionsas they enter young adulthood.
For some teens, mean girl behavior is part of a perfectionist personality type. At some level, they believe that they must be perfect to be loved, and that includes being popular and in control.Perfectionismcomes with its own set of potential mental health challenges, including eating disorders, anxiety, and depression.
5 Steps for Helping Teens Change Their Mean Girl Behaviors
Here’s how parents and others who work with teens can help them shift their behaviors and build self-awareness and positive relationship skills.
First, access compassion.
Understanding why teenage girls are so mean is the first step in helping them change. Parents and other adult mentors can view perpetrators not as mean girls but as teens who are using mean girl behaviors. Over time, these behaviors have become a coping mechanism for their underlying fears and insecurities. Recognizing their vulnerability can help adults access compassion and insight.
The next step is moving from a general understanding of why girls are so mean to a more specific understanding of why your daughter or student is mean to other girls. Start by trying to get a sense of what her experiences and interactions with friends are like. Ask questions about why she posted that nasty comment or why she doesn’t talk to so-and-so anymore. And don’t let her get away with an answer that places the blame or reason on the other girl. Instead, help her become more self-aware about her own underlying motivations, jealousy, and fears.
Educate her about what she’s doing.
Girls who engage in mean girl behaviors are often not aware that what they’re doing is a form of bullying. Educate her about relational aggression and its damaging impact on her and on those she victimizes. When you observe a mean girl behavior, point it out to her and help her find an alternate way to deal with whatever is at the root of the behavior.
Help her channel her strengths somewhere else.
With guidance, girls can redirect the energy, creativity, and leadership abilities they’ve been using to control their social circle. Help them find something that will give them a new, morepositive purpose and focus. That might be something creative, a sport, or a social issue they feel strongly about. Let them experience what it’s like to feel empowered and in control without having to hurt others in the process.
Teach and model empathy.
Consistent, meaningful connection between parents and teens can help girls move past mean girl behaviors. Let your daughter know that she can trust you enough to share what she’s really feeling.Listen to herwith care and patience, even if you don’t understand all of her worries and motivations. Gently directly her to imagine what other girls might be feeling, and how her actions might be impacting them.
“In a time when winning and success are highly valued, we need to help kids understand that empathy and compassion are more important than trophies, test scores, and college acceptances. To do this, we need to show empathy and compassion for others, and for our children.”—Katie Hurley, LCSW, author ofNo More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls
How to Support Girls to Deal with Peers Who Are Mean
For teens who are dealing with mean girls, it’s important to have the support and validation of parents. Teens can also learn skills for coping with relational aggression in the short and the long term.
Make sure she knows it’s not her fault.
Girls who are bullied often internalize the experience. They may start to feel worthless and as if they need to change something about themselves in order to be included. That’s why it’s so important for parents to assure their daughters that they are valued and loved, and that they will find friends who recognize what’s so special about them, just as they are.
Help her understand why teenage girls are so mean sometimes.
For girls who are victimized by peers, it can be helpful to have a more nuanced understanding of why girls are so mean to each other sometimes. Explain to her what catalyzes relational aggression. Let her know that mean girls are also terrified of being left out and rejected, and that their behaviors stem in part from those fears.
Give her practical tools for coping with bullying.
There are ways in which a teen can try to deflect relational aggression. Teach her how to project confidence and assurance, through maintaining good eye contact, good posture, and a strong speaking voice. These are skills that will serve her not only in deterring mean girls but also in her life in general.
Support her to build self-esteem.
Help girlsnurture their natural talents and strengthsso they can feel good about themselves despite their difficult interactions with peers. Provide opportunities for them to pursue hobbies and connect with clubs around their specific interests. Having positive experiences outside the context of the problematic friend group helps minimize the negative impact of mean girl bullying.
Encourage her to put energy into positive friendships.
If she is choosing to remain friends with peers who have mean girl behaviors, ask her why. What would it feel like and look like for her to make different choices more in line with what she really wants and believes? What’s the worst thing that could happen if she stepped away from the mean girl clique? Does she have other, more supportive friendships she could nourish if she spent less energy on mean girls? Rosalind Wiseman described a “Girl in the Middle” (GIM) type who is able to move between friendship circles. There’s less pressure on the GIM to fit in with one group or please one Queen Bee. So she’s able to be more empowered and true to herself.
When to Get Professional Help for a Mean Girl or Victim
As we’ve learned, relational aggression can have serious consequences. Being the target of mean girl behaviors in high school can lead to low self-esteem, suicidal thoughts, self-harm, depression, and anxiety. In addition, it can interfere with a teen’s ability to form healthy and trusting friendships into young adulthood and beyond.
Therapeutic treatment can help prevent the damaging effects of this type of bullying, for both perpetrators and victims. At Newport Academy, we provide opportunities for teens to build trusting, supportive connections with peers within the therapeutic context. When girls are able to be vulnerable and honest with each other, it helps to heal the pain of past rejection and bullying. Moreover, we help girls examine the social and family conditioning that drives their behaviors, and work toward expressing themselves bravely and authentically.
Contact us todayto find out about our tailored treatment plans for adolescents, and ourresidential and outpatient locations nationwide.
- Mean girl behaviors, also known as relational aggression, are a form of bullying that hinges on exclusion, backstabbing, and manipulation.
- Much of mean girl behavior can be attributed to social conditioning that teaches girls to “be nice” and avoid direct conflict within friendships.
- Victims of relational aggression can experience anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, self-harm, eating disorders, and/or substance abuse.
- Parents can support their daughters—whether they are mean girls or victims—to build self-esteem and learn skills for creating honest, trusting connections.
- Therapeutic treatment can help prevent the damaging mental health effects of this type of bullying, for both perpetrators and victims.
Why Are Teenage Girls So Mean? Frequently Asked Questions
Why would a girl be mean to another girl?
Because teens are so focused on belonging and fitting in, they may use mean girl behaviors to secure their place in a friend group. In addition, girls are not taught how to deal with relationship conflict directly.
How do you deal with mean teenage girls?
In dealing with mean girls, projecting strength and confidence is important. Victims can also choose to step out of the manipulative friend circle and focus energy on supportive friendships instead.
Why can’t my teenage daughter keep friends?
Girls who are mean to their friends may have poor social skills. Or they may be using mean girl tactics in an attempt to gain social status, and end up driving away other girls.
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