Is My Kid Ok?: Mean girls


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Q: My daughter is nearly 5 and has always been social. Lately she has been having problems with another girl in her preschool class. The girl started not letting my daughter play and then began telling my daughter that they were not friends. Now other classmates have started telling her they can’t be her friend because they are friends with the other girl. At first I thought it was just something kids say, but now it’s beginning to look like all-out bullying. Can there be “mean girls” in preschool? There is so much said about how dangerous bullying is these days. How do I ensure my daughter isn’t a victim?   A: Your daughter is experiencing relational aggression, a way of controlling one’s environment through rumors, exclusion and withdrawal of friendship, among other socially stigmatizing tactics. Studies have shown that girls use relational forms of bullying about as much as boys use physical aggression as a way of bullying. Though most of us can think back to middle school and identify the “mean girls,” we are now seeing that this phenomenon often starts around the age of 4 or 5.

It can be heartbreaking to know that your child is being picked on or excluded. Addressing this type of situation can be a difficult balancing act for parents. Your daughter needs to be able to deal with social conflicts on her own, if at all possible, as she will need conflict-resolution skills later in her life. Begin by teaching her a simple method of response:

  1. Tell the other child to stop and that it hurts her feelings.
  2. If the child continues, walk away.
  3. If the child follows her, tell an adult what is happening.

Offer her encouragement and support, and check with her the next day about how it went. If the teasing or exclusion is relentless or if your child is being more drastically affected (such as not wanting to go back to school), talk to the teacher. Explain that there has been some social conflict going on and ask him or her to keep an eye on the girls involved.

Relational aggression can be as serious as physical aggression, especially in older children. We may have been taught “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” but this is no longer true. What parents see as harmless words can turn into cyber-stalking, vicious rumors or ostracizing. Remember to take your child’s concerns seriously at any age. Kids who cut themselves, abuse substances or attempt suicide are often looking for some way to ease the pain which seems unbearable to them. Often a parent could have helped the child to bear it.

The main way to ensure your daughter is not a victim is to teach her to be a survivor. Have an open relationship with her that fosters communication and let her know that you believe in her. Build her confidence by focusing on her strengths. If assertiveness does not come naturally, help her by role-playing or help her to figure out the point she wants to get across. Finally, let her know that it is OK to say no or to tell others when she is uncomfortable. If your child has assertiveness and confidence, she is less likely to be an ongoing target for “mean girls.”

Empathy is a key lesson for parents of the “mean girl” to teach. Preschool is the perfect time to focus on emotional cause and effect with children. They may not realize that their actions hurt others, even when others have hurt them in the same way. However, be sure not to shame your child for things he or she has done. Shame does not teach anything except self-loathing. Children need to be guided and directed in how they treat others and how to correct their behaviors.

Regina Alexander is a licensed clinical social worker. She works as a counselor at Cone Health Behavioral Health Hospital. Please submit your questions to “Is My Kid OK?” by emailing sherri.mcmillen@conehealth.com.  
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