welpe asks: Why are girls so mean to each other?
Hi welpe –
This is an issue we hear about all the time these days. Movies like “Mean Girls” have brought this issue (which has existed forever) into the limelight, and recent news about social media has shown the danger of it.
What’s mystifying is just what you’re asking: WHY?!
We normally think of humans as sort-of split: Males are tougher, more likely to fight, while Females are softer, more nurturing, more likely to try to resolve issues kindly. Yet, while there’s some truth to that, humans go through a period, usually in early adolescence (say 12-15) when girls can be incredibly cruel, especially to other girls – right at a time when boys are often withdrawn and even passive.
What in the world?!
(I should add that we dogs are actually quite different in this regard. As adults, we females are more protective, fierce, even more likely to fight, than males. This has resulted in a certain word, referring to female dogs, that humans use very harshly – but I won’t go into that here!)
I can’t give you an absolute answer, welpe, but I will offer you three thoughts on it. Maybe they’ll help.
First, in human brain development, adolescence is a time when humans start to care immensely more about their peers than about their families. Where a seven-year-old girl might care most about pleasing her mommy, at fourteen she’s likely to spend the majority of her energy making sure that she’s not being left out of her group of friends, and that she’s not the object of their scorn. This is totally normal, and not a bad (or good) thing. It’s just a big part of how humans move on into adulthood.
Secondly, though, it’s not just the brain that’s developing. Once humans’ hormones begin working, attractiveness to peers starts becoming extremely important. And that means both how boys might look at you (which can be a really confusing, frightening, and strangely exciting experience) and how the other girls look at you. In fact, girls (and most women) actually care more about how the other females see them than how males do, even if their goal is to attract a man! (If you don’t understand what I’m saying, just ask a the friends of a well-dressed woman about what kind of shoes she’s wearing, and then ask her boyfriend, husband, or the guy she’s attracted to about those shoes; the women are likely to know a lot about them, while the man will probably be clueless and not care – no matter how much he might be attracted to her in them!)
When people go through a time of confusion, they often cover it up with a show of fierceness. (We dogs do that too – we’ll meet a person we’re not sure of, and growl just to make sure we’re safe.) So when a girl’s body starts to change, and people start to look at her differently, and she starts to look at other boys and girls differently, a self-protective, and sometimes mean, side of her often comes out.
(One other note: You asked about girls in general. I’m focusing on the 12-15-year-olds because that’s such a common time for this meanness to explode, but six-year-old girls can be very mean too – I know! Some have been mean to me! But I’d argue that those younger mean girls are mean for the same reasons boys that age are. Because they’re frustrated in life, because someone’s mean to them, because they’re jealous… Nothing so specific to being girls.)
Okay, I said there’s a third reason. This is something I talk about a lot on this website, because I think it’s SOOOO important. By the time a teenager reaches the age of about sixteen, their brains have developed fully, except in one area. Do you know what that area is?
A teenager has everything in their brain an adult has, except for a fully-developed sense of Time. Teens don’t see the future and the past in the way grownups do. It’s harder for teens to make long-term plans. And, what’s important here: Teens feel that what happens today is eternal: The person you have a crush on today is the only love of your life; the bad grade you got today will follow you around forever; the insult someone gave you today will mark every relationship for the rest of your days. None of these are true, but this is just what a teen feels!
(This is why Shakespeare made Romeo and Juliet teenagers. If they’d been in their twenties, they would have fallen in love, realized their families wouldn’t approve, and told each other “Okay, let’s keep this on the low-down for now, and when we can, like in a few weeks, we’ll sneak away to another town, get married, and write our families to tell them about it.” A very dull story, right? Instead, they felt they had to marry that day, couldn’t conceive of anything else, and ended up dead. Half-a-millennium later, and it’s still one of the most popular plays in the world — that guy was on to something!)
This thing about time means that when a teen is treated with cruelty, it hurts so much worse than if it happened later. Call an adult ‘fat,’ and you’ll hurt their feelings. Say it to a thirteen-year-old, and she’s crushed.
Now that has always been the case. But these days, there’s an added aspect to it, the most frightening thing in the world about mean girls…
Write that insult on Facebook, and she will believe that everyone in the world has seen it, and that it will label her forever. And it will be the most devastating experience of her life.
So one reason this talk about mean girls is so big today is just that: what used to be whispered in school is now being blared all over the world in social media, and girls are ripping each other to pieces with it!
Parents of early teens used to be scared of three things when their kids went to school: Tough gangs of boys, sexual activity, and their kid using drugs. Today, we really do have a fourth terror, which is mean girls on the internet! Those eternal qualities – of wanting to be cool in social status, of wanting to be the most attractive, and wanting everything right now – feed into horrible actions online. We’ve all heard the stories, even of suicides, from these postings. It’s just terrible.
So what can we do about it? Well, I have a couple of suggestions.
First, make meanness uncool. The reason I hardly ever bite anyone is that Handsome taught me, very strongly, not to. Is someone — at school, at church, at camp – wherever, showing the kids how stupid and ugly it is to be mean?
Second, as much as possible, expose the meanness when it comes. Those girls who want to be socially accepted won’t like it if the other kids at school find out they’re saying and doing petty cruelties, especially if the other kids look down on them for it.
And third, try to get those mean girls into groups that are run by smart, sensitive adults. A good therapist can work miracles by getting these kids into a situation where they start communicating openly, and hearing what each other is going through. Even the meanest of mean girls has a heart, and if she starts to relate to what her enemy is going through (“Your mom calls you that word too?!”), it’s suddenly a lot harder for her to treat her as badly. The desire to gain social power by being cruel can be improved into gaining social power by being kind. It happens every day.
So all these things can help. But if you’re just being treated meanly, my main advice to you is to know… and I mean KNOW… that this will pass, that this sort of behavior will change, and that you don’t deserve it at all. It’s just a stupid phase they’re going through. And don’t let those meanies get in the way of your life, and the incredible adult you’re going to be.
The adult they’re very likely going to envy!
All my best,