THE BLOG

Let's Get Used to It: Mean Girls Are Forever!

02/11/2015 05:38 pm ET | Updated Apr 13, 2015

It has finally been acknowledged that mean girl behavior and bullying, especially of the older and infirm, has ever been a fixture in nursing homes and assisted living facilities (January 18, 2015, SR4, "Mean Girls in Retirement Homes"). It is further now understood that those in the "powerful groups" (quotations of author) who know such behavior is wrong do nothing to stop it, fearing that if they do, they will also become targets of ridicule or rejection (J.A. Paquette and M.A. Underwood, 1999). "A developmental investigation of social aggression among children," Child Development, 73(4), pages 589-600).

Who can forget The New York Times' Feb. 3 story of Ann Clinton's exclusion from a bingo game that brought her pleasure? And I will never forget when my dear friend, recently widowed, was told she was no longer welcome at the couples table where she and her husband dined together for 10 years.

But here is a sad reality that is not readily known: Those who instigate bullying of the aging and vulnerable have been perfecting their seasoned routine for a very long time! While studies show that the highest prevalence of female-to-female bullying takes place from the 6th to 8th grade, it does not end there. It continues far more determinedly than most understandably want to either see or admit (When Mean Girls Grow Up, Dr. Cheryl Dellasega, 2007).

In order not to be seen as picking on gals, allow me to clarify both topic and focus: In this blog we are discussing what is called "relational aggression," a form of psychologically manipulative bullying that excludes others from social experiences, damages reputations through gossip and humiliation, and controls others through fear of withdrawal of "friendship" and contact (Marion K. Underwood, 2003, "Social Aggression Among Girls, Guilford Press, 2001). Cyber-bullying is based on these painful and damaging tactics of relational aggression (http://www.cyberbullying.org).

To clarify further: While verbal aggression is seen in both sexes (PK Smith and I Rivers, Types of bullying behavior and their correlates, Aggressive Behavior, 1994. 20:359-368), physical aggression is seen more commonly among boys, whose bullying expressions usually involve threats and physical harm (A.C. Buldry, "Bullying Among Italian Middle School Students, School Psychol International, 1998, 19:361-374). Relationally aggression behavior, however (though employed by both sexes), is usually found in girls, who, as stated, also are more likely to say that it is morally wrong (Tonja R. Nansel, "Bullying Behavior Among US Youth: Prevalence and Association With Psychosocial Adjustment," JAMA, issue 16, 2001, pages 2094-2100).

In settings where relational aggression thrive there is a ring leader, who Rosalind Wiseman in her book "Queen Bees and Wannabees" and Cheryl Dellasega in her book, "Mean Girls Grow Up" identify as a Queen Bee, who has active assistants who do her bidding. What I have seen again and again in my clinical practice is that the assistants do the bidding of the Queen Bee because they enjoy what is expected of them and do not wish to relinquish these roles and its accompanying status. Further, those who are in their circle without positions of power do not stand up to those in control, even when they dislike their behavior, because they yearn to feel safe and included in a group seen as powerful. They want a saved seat at a choice dining table. They want a reserved seat at films shown; and they do not want their aging bodies made fun of as they exercise (L Steinberg, 2008, Adolescence, 8th edition, McGrow-Hill, and each above referenced NY Times article discusses this).

The dangerous patterns of relational aggression are not genetic (Bullying Behaviors: Blame It On Bad Genes? Science Daily, March 10, 1999). They develop as a way that girls learn how to navigate and achieve their goals. In my experience those who develop and hold onto this behavior have either been deprived of love and respect in formative years (even if it may not seem that way to the outside world) or they have been extremely overindulged and never learned that they are not the center of every "universe" they enter. I codify five ingrained patterns of emotional abuse in my book, "Setting YourSelf Free, 2002)," and repeatedly, I have seen that these are the patterns of behavior that bring misery to others. As the writer Jennifer Weiner shares ("Mean Girls in Retirement Homes," The New York Times Sunday Review Section, January 17, 2015), "the cruel, like the poor, are always with us ... mean girls stay mean -- they just start wearing support hose and dentures."

Consider a few brief examples of the prevalence of this form of bullying...

Arlene consulted me because her 3-year-old was not a welcome member of her neighborhood music group, and neither was she. In her words, "This exclusion has made me feel sick inside. I do not fit in with those of status in my neighborhood because I am not interested in what the others seem interested in, and they take it out on my little girl. If I sit next to a mom in the tots' music group, she turns her back on me; and she is holding her child, who then looks away too. I try to fit in. I really do, but I am rejected at every turn." What was my advice to this lovely young woman? To be herself, to act as if the treatment toward her does not matter and just rolls off, to enjoy the music with her daughter, and in time she and a different quality of friend will find each other. It happened!

Murray scheduled a session because his second wife, Edna, was "bringing misery to me and my adult children." Murray's wife of 25 years died six months after the diagnosis pancreatic cancer. Bereft and lonely after a loving and fulfilling marriage, he admitted to marrying a "beautiful woman I barely knew." In this marriage, Murray described feeling like his "wife's yo-yo." In his words, "Edna can be warm one day, and cold and distant another. If I reach out to her, and she is not the one in control, she is always rejecting. Before our marriage, Edna seemed to welcome my friends into her world, and of course, I welcomed hers. Now she only has time for her friends, and night after night, when I return from my law firm, she is on the phone and it is up to me to find my own dinner." Edna was not interested in the referral to marital therapy I recommended. Murray decided to leave this marriage, fearing (with good reason) that his wife's manipulative patterns and coldness would in time make him ill.

Ed did not have Murray's wise instincts. He kept trying to change his wife's behavior and "win her over." He described feeling more like her "pet dog, which she sometimes would feed and other times ignore, than a husband." Ed consulted me when ill with severe aortic stenosis. "I am not saying that Cindy has made me sick," he explained, "but I have stayed trying to buy love much too long." After our working together for two months, Ed decided to move into the grandparent apartment of one of his married daughters, and in this way, "I found some semblance of peace and calm."

Jenny and her husband Al, new to a neighborhood, joined a movie club that offered monthly films and discussion groups, followed by a potluck supper. Jenny knew one member of the club, Belinda, who she thought would help her to meet others. She knew immediately at their first meeting that this was not going to happen. Belinda turned her back on Jenny as soon as she and Al arrived. In therapy, Jenny saw that Belinda was a lieutenant to the Queen Bee of the club, Miranda. She was not going to befriend one person Miranda did not sanction. I encouraged Jenny not to follow her first impulse and drop out of the group. Instead, Jenny realized that a wiser option was for she and her husband to ignore this horrific acting out, and enjoy the films and subsequent discussions. In time, some interesting couples, who wanted no part of any of the Bees, welcomed and befriended them.

Darlene, a recent widow, shared a similar experience when she sold her large suburban home and moved to a downtown condominium to enjoy what the city offered. What she found in this new setting was a scene dominated by the Queen and her Bees, who did not welcome her in any way what so ever. Lonely for the first time in her adult life, Darlene explained: "My children have their own lives, ones I do not want to intrude on; and I do not want to be the nanny to their kids. I moved to the city because I wanted to create my own new life. I thought here I would find kindness and sophistication, surely not exclusion and snobbishness from grown women. How wrong I was!" Like Jenny, Darlene realized that joining the cultural groups and participating in those activities that interested her would in time lead her to friendships with those who were authentic and mature in development, not those who Darlene came to understand were actually "aging and pathetic mean girls."

But what of those older women who need the support of a retirement home and find themselves confronted with behaviors that professionals recognize as predicable and even rampant in such settings? Residents who do not take these behaviors personally and let them roll off have the easiest time, but not all can accomplish this. The experience of staff members is that the natures of those who have been unkind and manipulative all of their lives do not change. However, what can change is staff expectation and policy, clearly stated, that rude, discriminatory behaviors to others will not be tolerated. Further, relatives of those living in retirement communities who are suffering must speak to staff, who can help those treated unkindly to find companionship. Sometimes families must organize and bring their observations and concerns to an institution as a group. There are times when a Queen Bee continues to cause so much stress to others that she must be asked to leave. As for the former friends of Ann Clinton who excluded the recently widowed and motorized scooter-bound 80-year-old Ann Clinton (mentioned above) from her adored bingo game, my recommendation is a 100-word essay on compassion and empathy.