Shawna Curtis viscerally remembers watching her five-year-old daughter Emie’s first “mean girl” moment. “Emie chose a special outfit for school and ran up to two girls she idolized to show them. One looked her up and down and said she looked stupid,” the Toronto mother recalls. “She was heartbroken. It broke my heart. Kids are so mean today.”
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“Mean girl” behaviour—intentional, hurtful or socially aggressive acts meant to gain power over others—is seen in kids as young as four, says a 2005 Brigham Young University study. While teenaged girls were often observed using manipulation to secure positions in the social hierarchy, similar strategies were also seen among preschoolers.
“Parents tell me that ‘mean girls’ are getting younger,” says Andrea Nair, a London, Ont., psychotherapist who believes it could be linked to more kids being in organized settings (like daycare) at a young age. “They’re thrown into a room with other kids and quickly learn there’s a pecking order.”
Nair says that these kids create a tornado of attack that is contagious. “The girls in the pack have fun. They might have a feeling that the way they’re treating someone isn’t right, but they haven’t developed enough empathy yet to make them act on that feeling.” She says that anger is at the root. “Between five and eight years old, anger is an outward display of underlying sadness or fear. We all need to feel important, and if that need isn’t being met, kids will find a way of fulfilling it.”
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Media can also play a role. A 2006 study found that aggressive behaviour among preschoolers increased exponentially with media exposure—even “educational” TV; girls became more relationally aggressive, while boys became more physical. Nair cautions that many young kids are also on social media despite posted age restrictions, and in certain environments, it can encourage cruelty. “The arm’s-length feeling of being online can make it easier for kids to say things they wouldn’t in person,” says Nair.
For kids on the receiving end, validate their feelings, suggest strategies to alleviate their sadness and work with them on solutions. “Ask your child: ‘Should you talk to the girls about it? Should I talk to their moms? How do we handle it when they let their mad turn them mean?’” Also teach kids to team up with like-minded peers in view of a teacher, since these girls will often pick on individuals out of plain sight. Most importantly, foster courage. “Teach your child to look her aggressor in the eye and stand up to her.”
The effects of being a target of repeated social aggression can linger, especially if a girl starts believing what’s being said. “She might become someone who gives up when frustrated, or hesitates to try new things,” says Nair, who stresses the importance of reinforcing positive core beliefs. “Tell her that when kids say words to hurt, they’re trying to make themselves feel better; if they say ‘fat’ or ‘ugly,’ they probably don’t have happy hearts. The words are a reflection of their sadness, not reality.”
What if your child is doling out the insults? Modelling empathy is crucial. “It’s up to us to coach our kids to manage their instincts to be mean, to explain that it’s our job as people in the world to not hurt others. Relate the experience back to a time when a child hit her and how that felt.” Nair says that because empathy is still developing, recognize if your child is having mixed feelings about her behaviour—it shows growth (“I’m angry and I want to say something mean, but I know it will hurt you, and I don’t want to hurt you”).
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Emie got over her schoolyard incident pretty quickly, but Curtis is remaining vigilant. “We’re still working on strategies for coping because, let’s be honest—it’s something she may have to deal with for a while. But the next time she wore that outfit, she rushed into school with the same enthusiasm, which made us both feel good.”
A version of this article appeared in the December 2014 issue with the headline “Mini meanies,” p. 58.