Last fall, my 9-year-old daughter burst into my bedroom crying about an email from her friend "S." that said: "What are you doing right now? I'm having a sleepover with [other friend] and we're having so much fun!" My daughter, tears cascading down her cheeks, wanted to know why S. would send that to her. What was the point? How to explain that the point was to crush my daughter? Worse: Mission accomplished.
I made myself take a deep breath before asking her why she thought S. sent the email. "I don't know!" she scoffed, "but I want to tell her that it was rude, especially because she does this type of thing all the time." I told her she should go ahead and tell S. that then. She marched to the computer and emailed S., "Glad you're having fun but it hurt my feelings to read that. Please don't write something like that again." Rather than replying with an apology, S. emailed back with more glorious details about the sleepover. When my daughter showed me, I wanted to grab the keyboard and type back, "You are de-friended. Buh-bye!" Instead, I hugged my girl and told her I was sorry and understood her disappointment. My stomach twisted in knots.
We women all remember events like this from girlhood and that being direct with your feelings can sometimes make the situation worse. That's what happened in this case. Once S. realized my daughter was upset by her "updates," S. sent several more to maximize jealousy. I changed tactics. First, I suggested my daughter stop replying to S.'s emails. Second, I trained my girl in the weapons of nonchalance and bored expressions. "The next time S. tells you how much fun she's having with another girl," I told her, "smile blandly and say, 'cool.' Do not let her see you get upset. She'll stop as soon as she sees she can't bother you." "OK," my daughter sighed, "I'll give it a try." My daughter succeeded, and S. moved on to torment other classmates.
That was only the start of fourth-grade, mean-girl moments. There was the girl who began her statements with "No offense but..." followed by a devastating remark; the girl who made up rumors while looking for attention; the one who threw down a nasty insult and then muttered, "Just kidding." In spite of how cliché these moments are, they still sting when you're the target. I have explained to my daughter that mean-girl behavior often comes from insecurity, and that girls who genuinely feel good about themselves don't need to put others down. I tell her the punishment of being a mean girl is that, well, you are the sad girl who can't be trusted.
That helped but my daughter also needed to to know more about how to protect herself if she tried to be clear and real with her feelings and was met by more disrespect. I've taught her the sarcastic, "Gee, thanks so much for telling me that," and, "If you have to start a sentence with 'no offense,' it's offensive," and, "Your 'just kidding' comments? Not so funny." These basic comments, if delivered without emotion, usually do the trick.
I'm relieved she's learning these tools early because, let's face it, there is a mean girl wherever you go, whether it's the rumor-starter in high school, the boyfriend-stealer in college, the backstabber at book club, the put-down queen at the office. In my experience, there are far more strong and supportive females than ill-intending ones, but those mean girls pack a strong punch. So I'm glad that my daughter is learning how to deal with them early, while living at home where I can offer hugs, suggestions and listening ears. Instead of seeing these girls as the "enemy," I try to feel thankful for them because they are helping my daughter learn to advocate for herself, walk away from drama and seek out girls who make her feel good about herself.