Welcome to Good Parenting, our weekly online series on parenting advice with Annapolis, Maryland, expert Dr. Deborah Wood.
Dear Dr. Debbie,
My daughter is in the fourth grade. She has never been very outgoing, but has generally had at least three good friends in her class each year – one of whom has been in every class with her since kindergarten.
This year there seems to be a “Mean Queen” in the class. “Beatrix,” has been leading several other girls in saying unkind things about the girls who are not in their clique. My daughter tells me about it in search of strategies to try to avoid being the target. So far I’ve advised her to ignore the remarks, ask herself if the comment holds any truth, and to feel sorry for someone who thinks she needs to do such a thing to attract friends. And we talk about what kind of friends would be attracted to a Mean Queen. (It all boils down to low self-esteem.)
Should I inform the teacher of the discomfort my daughter is experiencing in school? Should I rally the mothers of my daughter’s three nice friends to join me? Talking to Beatrix’s mother doesn’t seem the right approach, especially since I don’t know her other than by sight.
Perplexed But Willing to Step Up
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The kind of behavior you are describing is indeed likely to be rooted in self-esteem issues. Peer approval is keenly important at this age, and will continue to be through adolescence. The Mean Queen may lack other means of assuring her status among the peer group, and those who follow her lead may similarly not have other ways of valuing themselves. Part of maturing into adulthood is discovering your true talents and passions rather than relying so much on others’ estimations of your worth.
Your role in all this is mainly to support your daughter, as you are doing. You also help when you provide opportunities for her and her good friends to have fun doing things together out of school. These times are for discovering their talents and passions, but also for deepening their friendships with each other. Dodging the slings and arrows of mean girls (for the next several years) is so much easier when you have strong friendships with nicer girls that remind you that you are indeed an appealing and amazing person.
Drawing out sympathy from your daughter for the mean ones is also a helpful strategy. Help her to ponder why each one is experiencing low self-esteem. It may be that Beatrix or the others have trouble feeling successful with the “school” part of school. They may be compensating for how their poor grades make them feel about themselves by finding fault (or inventing faults) in others. Or maybe one has a parent who does too much for her – a “spoiled” child, who has low self-esteem because she never gets to experience hard work and achievement. Maybe another has a parent who does too little, because he or she is caught up in a career or is busy with other children in the family. Or another girl may come from a home environment in which a parent or older sibling continually finds fault with her. The child who feels neglected or “picked on” at home compensates by trying to make someone at school feel bad about herself – from the safety of a bullying posse.
A bold move for you and your daughter would be to foster a friendship with one of the mean girls. Some one-on-one time could occur with a school project, an after school activity (scouts, sports, etc.) or an invitation to accompany you and your daughter on a weekend outing. Since bullying is a numbers game (as well as a self-esteem issue), this strategy is worth considering.
If despite these tactics your daughter reports that things are only getting worse, then share your concerns with someone who knows the girls involved – the teacher, the school counselor, or the mothers of your daughter’s friends. Your choice should reflect your confidence in this person’s ability to invest some thought and effort into solving the problem. What you don’t want to do is behave as the “Mean Girls” do – rallying allies to prey upon others – but rather use your collective resources to make things better for everyone. Maybe there’s a volunteer project the class needs parents to do such that you could become better acquainted with Beatrix’s mother? Children tend to follow suit when adults act cooperatively with each other.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.
What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com