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How not to raise a mean girl

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Story highlights

"Mean girl" behavior begins as young as elementary school, according to experts

Mothers have to "model being allies to other women," one author says

Teaching empathy is a key way to prevent raising a mean girl, parents said

Mean girls often have low self-esteem and/or are seeking approval

Editor’s Note: Kelly Wallace is CNN’s digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. She is a mom of two girls. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.

CNN —  

I am one of the lucky ones. I didn’t meet my first “mean girl” until freshman year of college.

Before I met her – let’s call her “Z” – I lived life assuming that people would for the most part treat me the way I treated them. Oh, how wrong I was.

Z was close to my freshman roommate, who was the opposite of a mean girl, but whenever Z was around, it was clear that a) she had no time for me and b) I was not welcome in anything she was doing.

To this day, whenever I think of mean girls, I think back to Z and wonder what led her to be so miserable to me and probably other girls, too.

I find myself thinking about that question a lot lately as I watch my daughters, now 6 and 8, negotiate female friendships. Sadly, I have already seen mean girl qualities in some girls in their peer group, and my kids are still years away from middle school!

Pink, princess-y and sexy too soon

Educational psychologist Lori Day says the problem is growing worse with the increasing power of the Internet and today’s hyperfeminine girl culture, so we’re seeing more mean girls today and at younger ages.

Here’s where we as parents need to slam on the brakes. If the problem is getting worse and it’s starting with girls as young as elementary school, what can we do about it? How can we avoid raising mean girls?

Day, who is out with the powerful new book “Her Next Chapter: How Mother-Daughter Book Clubs Can Help Girls Navigate Malicious Media, Risky Relationships, Girl Gossip and So Much More,” says mothers really have to “model being allies to other women.”

“When girls see their mother gossiping with a female friend about another female friend, putting down someone because of how they look or their weight … it’s modeling the wrong thing for girls,” she said.

She recommends being explicit with young girls about this philosophy. “You can say, ‘I really try not to tear other women down. I try to build them up,’ ” said Day, who wrote the book along with her recent college graduate daughter and devoted an entire chapter to dealing with mean girls.

Opinion: Are women mean or just stating the facts?

Louise Sattler, a school psychologist, sign language educator and mom of two grown children in Los Angeles, knows all too well about mean girls. When she was in high school, one girl, we’ll call her “C,” seemed to have it out for her.