Deconstructing 'mean girls': Relational aggression and how to tackle it

What makes a mean girl a mean girl?

'We should never say that's just girls. Because it's not just girls — we can do better than that'

The movie Mean Girls was based on Rosalind Wiseman's 2002 bestseller Queen Bees and Wannabes. (The Associated Press)

"Oh, it's just girls being girls."

It's a sentiment used to sum up a wide range of behaviours — like teasing, exclusion, gossiping and more. But Linda Stade, an educator, writer and researcher in Western Australia, says weeding out mean girls starts with calling it what it really is. 

"Relational aggression is really a psychology term for what the rest of us call mean-girl behaviour," she told CBC Radio's On the Go

"I think it's important that it's named and shamed by adults."

Linda Stade is an education writer in Australia. (Facebook)

"It's a really subtle form of bullying where it focuses on damaging a person's sense of social planks, usually in friendship groups and between friends. But obviously they're not really friends." 

Stade, who is part of the Community Relations Department at Santa Maria College in Western Australia, said eliminating relational aggression starts with doing away with the notion that kids have to be friends with everybody.

Say "that sucks," because it does.- Linda Stade

"[That] devalues what friendship is," she said.

"Friendship is about shared values and experiences and interests. It's not just everyone who is in your class has to be your friend."

5 mean girl factors

Five main factors make mean-girl behaviour. Stade broke them down:

  • Exclusion is when a child is deliberately left out. This is now more prominent thanks to social media. 
  • Gossip is when a child is talked about by their peers. This damages their friendships and social standing.
  • Silent treatment is when a child is pointedly not spoken to. This is a behaviour that some carry over to adulthood.
  • Belittling is when someone says something cruel or snarky and then "camoflauges" it by adding "just joking!" at the end. 

The fifth component is conditional friendship, according to Stade. 

"It's when a child knows that there are unspoken rules about behaviour and going along with the group … and they're dictated by a queen bee or a leader in the social group," she said. "It's the reason why we have many lovely young girls and some boys who behave very poorly.

"Because that inclusion in the group is so important to them and their developing psyche, that they will act against their better nature in order to remain in that inner circle."

Time is big to kids.- Linda Stade

She said the impacts on kids are tangible, and dismissing the behaviour as teasing isn't helpful.  

"It's very hard to listen through a math lesson when you're thinking about the horrible things your best friend said to you at recess," Stade said.

How to help kids navigate frenemies

Stade urges parents to avoid knee-jerk emotional responses, which she understands is easier said than done when it comes to a parent's fierce protective nature. 

"Hit pause, don't take away your child's power by running down to the school or saying, 'I'm going to call that [other] child's mom and sort it out," she said. 

She said kids will need your support, so sit down and listen them. 

"Say 'that sucks,' because it does, and let them talk about it. Don't try to fix it for them," she said. "I think we find that very difficult for kids, just letting them talk so that we can understand what they're feeling."

(Credit: Getty Images)

Make sure they stay involved in home life, she said.

"Get them into family routines and try to separate school from home. Because of the internet, kids are often connected 24/7 and they shouldn't be — they need a break from their friends. So family time is really, really important," Stade explained.

And don't give in to the urge to say it'll all blow over in a bit of time. 

"Time is big to kids," she said. "But I think if you tell them, 'Look. this is what happened to me when I was young … then they know they're not alone."

Stop it before they learn it

Stade said parents can be "incredibly powerful" role models and can help stop their little ones from turning into a dreaded frenemy. 

"I think we should go out of our way to talk about our friends and the good qualities that our friends have," she said.

Another key step is getting them to think about how others feel.

"You can start teaching empathy at a very young age and ask pointed questions about, 'How do you think your brother feels?'" Stade said.

Don't let school and home be the only two places for kids to hang out with others. 

"[You] need to give kids lots of opportunities to make a variety of friends," she said, noting sports can be a great unifier. 

In the end, parents shouldn't let the clinical-sounding term throw them off.

"We need to name relational aggression and talk about it. People are a bit afraid of using big words with kids, but I don't shy away from it at all. If you can name a dinosaur type at five [years old], you can name relational aggression as a teen or as a tween," Stade said.

"We should never say that's just girls. Because its not just girls — we can do better than that."

With files from On the Go