10/29/2014 11:48 am ET Updated Dec 29, 2014

What to Do When It's Your Daughter who is the Mean Girl

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A recent subplot on Parenthood involved Sydney's transformation into a Mean Girl. Her parents, Julia and Joel, attended a parent/teacher conference, assuming Sydney was the victim of bullying. Julia and Joel are in the midst of a divorce. When they learned Sydney was the aggressor, they were heartsick -- for two whole episodes.

The guilt and shame Julia and Joel felt led to blaming each other. In an effort to fix things, be polite and act in the politically correct "Braverman" style, Sydney's parents took her to the home of her victim to apologize. This insincere and forced apology was even more hurtful to the target of Sydney's mean behavior.

Because all of this takes place in TV series land, Sydney's parents spent one minute trying to figure out what to say to her so she would understand what is happening to her parents' marriage and stop being angry and hurtful to others. Sydney's behavior was a plot device to illustrate the parents' complicated relationship. Will they divorce? Will they reconcile? No one seemed to think that Sydney, who appeared to be unraveling from the stress at home, needed professional help. Julia and Joel must have figured out what to say because by the next episode, their daughter's mean behavior was over.

That's not how it works in real life. Thankfully, some parents in my community who read my previous blog on this topic, "Female Bullies and Mean Girls in Training," took more time to deal with the issue than Sydney's parents. They understood the solution is not so simple as having a short talk with their kids. They wanted to help their young daughters navigate the rough social waters with kindness, empathy and respect for others. And, I am happy to report that the third grade "pay to play" scheme going on during lunch recess has ended. Because parents and teachers intervened in a thoughtful and meaningful way, girls no longer need to bring a toy from home or give up part of their lunch to join a club.

Many parents were shocked that they had to deal with this behavior at such a young age. They wondered what they could have done to prevent the incident. How would they know if there were future incidents? And how should they talk to their daughters?

I asked Dr. Alissa Chung, a clinical child psychologist and lecturer on child development at Northwestern University, how to approach this problem when it happens in real life. She advised spending some time to reflect on the meaning of the behavior. All children's behavior is telling us something, but the same behavior can mean different things, depending on the child.

When a girl is acting meanly toward her peers in elementary school, there are several possibilities. How parents should respond depends on which description fits their child.

The behavior could just be normative growing pains. The girls could be trying out the behavior as part of trying to figure out how to navigate socially.

Although most girls will likely grow out of this, it is still best not to ignore it. Rather, use it as one of those teachable moments. Explain how the behavior makes others feel. Don't shame your daughter, but do explain that, even if others are acting this way, it is unacceptable, mean and just plain wrong. The goal is to help your daughter develop empathy and the ability to understand someone else's perspective. A parent could say, "I know you are a kind person and you can do better. What can you do to make up for your behavior to the girl you hurt?" Encourage acts of restitution rather than rote apologies. For example, your child could invite the child she rejected to play with her. If that child refuses, your child has learned a lesson from a natural consequence of her behavior.

The girls may be using the behavior to gain power or social status.

For the Queen Bees in training, parents might ask themselves if their daughters are modeling their parents' social behavior. Or have these child seen this behavior in the media? Parents can get caught up in their daughters' social status, but should recognize that this kind of popularity can be fleeting and does not mean that their children are really well-liked. The goal is to help girls with the social skills they need to make real friends before they are dethroned. You can explain to your daughter true leaders are inclusive. If you suspect there is an underlying issue, you could work with the school social worker or a mental health professional. Perhaps her need to control stems from some underlying anxiety. She may feel she can only have friends and feel OK about herself by using power and threats to manipulate others.

The girls may be angry about a life event they cannot control. They are acting out their feelings with their peers.

This is the Sydney scenario from Parenthood. If there is some significant stress in their family life, professional intervention can help. The behavior is a cry for help. These girls likely feel powerful emotional turmoil -- anger, helplessness, guilt, shame, etc. This type of Queen Bee is buzzing with feelings she cannot control. So she takes this out on other girls. Thus, forcing Sydney to apologize only served to make her angrier. Even worse, the victim of her mean behavior and the victim's parents were justifiably more upset by Sydney's insincere words. If there is unusual stress in your family life, you should consider that it may be motivating your child to act out, and that your child needs professional help.

The behavior could indicate a lack of empathy. The girls could be getting pleasure from the distress of others.

This is the most rare reason for mean girl behavior. Some girls are tactless and inappropriate because they don't understand social cues. They can be hurtful to others, but they are not being intentionally cruel. There are a small number of kids who also lack empathy but also seem to be innately mean. Perhaps others have treated them poorly. In either case, if you think this describes your daughter, it's important to seek professional help. She may need to be taught the appropriate social responses that a typically developing girl picks up on her own.

How am I supposed to know this is happening? My daughter never shares this.

Sometimes parents feel like they are the last to know about these mean girl interactions. How can they help their daughters when they have no idea this is happening? I know it's hard to talk about, but parents and teachers should be honest and communicate when they observe these behaviors.

What could you say? Maybe something like, "I feel awkward coming to you about this, but if it were my daughter I would want to know. I'm not sure exactly what's going on, but here's what I heard/observed... Maybe you want to investigate."

Think of sharing the truth about these situations as a gift to both the parents and the girl exhibiting this behavior. It allows parents to address the behavior when it is possible to change things. It's hard to tell another parent but ask yourself, wouldn't you want to know so you could help your daughter?

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