My kid is a 'mean girl': Experts break down what parents can do — and why boys can be just as guilty

Here's how parents can respond to bullying behavior — in girls and boys. (Image: Getty; illustrated by Nathalie Cruz)
Here's how parents can respond to bullying behavior — in girls and boys. (Image: Getty; illustrated by Nathalie Cruz)

There’s plenty of literature out there on what to do if your child is the victim of so-called "mean girl" behavior. But what do you do if you find out your child is the mean girl? Maybe a school administrator phones you about your daughter picking on others, or another parent shares that she's been gossiping about their kid. Perhaps you've caught wind of a catty text while monitoring her smartphone. Whatever the source, the news may be hard to digest at first.

“For any of us, if we’re told our kid has done something bad or mean, we immediately think ‘not my precious baby,’” says Alexis Bleich, a New York City-based social worker and therapist who works with teens. “Take a nice, deep breath and don’t panic. Be open and be curious because this is an opportunity to really help.”

Bleich facilitates workshops and group sessions with teen girls, where they often steer the conversations toward the inner workings of friendships and the struggles that go along with them. If you find out your child is acting less than stellar to her peers, you’ll want to get to the root of why she is acting the way she is, Bleich tells Yahoo Life. Chances are it has less to do with the targeted child and more to do with your child’s feelings.

For example, gossiping usually isn’t done with hurtful intentions. Instead the participating parties are, typically unknowingly, doing it to bond with each other.

“People gossip as a way to feel close to someone, letting them in on information they know,” Bleich says. “Ask your child ‘is there another way to feel close to your friend without talking about this person?’”

Bleich also suggests using this opportunity to reinforce your own family values. Give examples of conflicts you’ve had at work or with your own friend groups and how you handled them. Point out conflicts on TV and discuss with your child how they would act in that situation.

“Kids are always listening," Bleich says. "Even if they roll their eyes, they are picking up on everything."

This mean girl behavior typically comes to life in middle school, when puberty is starting to hit and all those emotions are coming out strong. Bleich says the bad behavior usually fades around 10th grade, when teens tend to have more confidence and a better understanding of how to navigate relationships.

But until that time comes, Bleich says parents should understand an important fact: Boys can be just as mean as girls.

“I loathe the term 'mean girls' because it’s so misogynistic,” Bleich says. “Girls are made to think this should be part of their social dynamic. We don’t say ‘he’s a mean boy.’ It doesn’t carry the same [weight].”

Part of the reason girls get the bad rap, Bleich explains, is because girls tend to be more invested in their friendships emotionally. They usually care more about friendship dynamics and place more of an emphasis on cliques.

Courtney Conley, a Maryland-based therapist and wellness expert who specializes in helping youths, says it’s important to remember the mean girl behavior is a form of communication.

“There’s a reason why a kid would be acting that way, whether it’s to gain popularity, whether they have been a target themselves or they are trying to fit in with a particular crowd that also has that mean girl mentality," she says. “Step back and look at the larger picture. A lot of times it’s a power play where that child is attempting to put themselves in what they view is a better position socially.”

Conley tells Yahoo Life that few people are actually mean-spirited and set out to make others upset. She advises parents not to overreact and shame your child if she is labeled as a mean girl. Instead, have a simple conversation with your child to find out what is going on, and help them see the situation from the other side.

Online communication and social media also fuels the fire of the mean girl mentality, Conley says. More monitoring can help in that department, allowing parents to know what content their children are consuming and what behavior is being portrayed in what they’re watching.

“Look at text messages and your child’s online communication,” Conley says. “That’s a good way to find out if your child is being the mean one.”

Wellness, parenting, body image and more: Get to know the who behind the hoo with Yahoo Life's newsletter. Sign up here.