Why are some girls so mean?
That's the question my 9-year-old daughter asked me as she opened up about a girl at school who is bullying her.
I'm hesitant to use the word bullying because it carries such weight these days but in this case, I believe it is the only word to describe the targeted, repeated and cruel behavior this classmate portrayed toward my daughter.
When my daughter first told me what was going on, I had to fight my mama bear instincts. I didn't, for example, storm over to this little girl's house, shake her by the shoulders and demand to know why she would treat my sweet daughter this way.
I didn't do that, even though it took just about every ounce of restraint not to. Instead, I listened to my daughter tell me every last detail, and then I showed even more restraint by not launching into my advice on how to fix the problem. I just let her cry and talk and let someone in on the secret she had kept for so long alone.
Fortunately, my husband has been an educator for many years and deals with interpersonal relationships between elementary-aged kids almost daily. So, I always go to him whenever I don't know what to do, which seems to be increasingly often as my children's problems change from, "He won't share" to "She is trying to undercut my self-esteem and destroy my self-image."
Together, we came up with a plan. We decided the bullying had not reached a level where it needed to be reported yet, and we wanted to give our daughter the chance to handle her problem on her own so she would know how to address such "mean girl" issues in the future.
First, we made it abundantly clear that the bullying was in no way our daughter's fault. We talked about some of the reasons why children — girls especially, it seems — pick on others. Maybe there is something wrong at home. Maybe they are doing poorly in school or have few friends. Maybe they are jealous. Whatever the reason, it is their issue, and we wanted our daughter to know she had simply been the innocent bystander who unfortunately became this girl's target.
Then, we asked our daughter what she had done to fix the situation. Had she told the girl she didn't like the way she talked to her? Had made it clear she didn't want to play with her if she was treated poorly? Turns out, she hadn't. She was embarrassed to speak up, especially because her tormentor would likely just make fun of her for it in front of the other kids.
So, we challenged our daughter to stand up for herself. We role-played the conversation where she could politely but firmly tell this girl she did not want to be treated so unkindly.
Finally, we put a deadline on it. If she was unable to have this conversation within a week or if the girl did not change her behavior despite my daughter's efforts, then she would need to ask a teacher for help.
So, we had a plan. All was well. Problem solved. Parenting win!
A day went by. Then two. I nervously waited at the door every afternoon. I wanted this to be a good lesson for my daughter but let's be honest, I also really wanted her to stop acting out her frustrations in our home. Ever since the bullying started, she had turned around and started being mean to her little sister and to me. I was anxious for my sweet girl to return.
Then, on the third day, she did.
She came home smiling from ear to ear as she announced, "I did it!" She explained how she was scared to address the problem but how she knew it was time when the bullying girl turned her sights on one of my daughter's closest friends. Seeing her friend be hurt emboldened my daughter to stand up for both of them.
In response, the girl said OK and told her she liked her shirt.
Now, it hasn't been perfect since that day. Some days are good and some days slip into the old habits.
And unfortunately, I know this won't be the last mean girl experience we encounter as we raise two daughters. But I'm so glad my daughter learned that it's not OK for anyone to treat her like that, and that the first step is to stand up for herself (and her friends) and then to get help from a teacher or an adult if she can't handle it alone.
How do you teach your children to handle bullying at a young age?