04/18/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Mean Girls And The Parents Who Love Them

Q: The video of a girl being beaten up by six other girls is very upsetting to me. I have a 16-year-old daughter and I live constantly with the fear of anorexia, drugs, pregnancy, reckless driving, idiotic boyfriends --and dozens of other horrible possibilities that, with a moment's reflection, reduce me to intense anxiety. I try to stay vigilant about her activities while simultaneously trying to keep open our lines of communication. I try to respect her, to be aware of her self-esteem, and to give her the freedom to be exactly who she is. What does a parent do? How does a parent understand and deal with all the psychological issues that affect a kid nowadays? I bet the parents of those girls didn't have a hint about what they were up to. That's what scares me. They could have been you or me.

Are the parents doing the "right thing" now? Some of them are standing by their kids, denying what seems obvious on the video tape. They say they are waiting for the true story to emerge. Are they doing the right thing? After all, shouldn't parents always stand by their children -no matter what? I am reminded of accusations against members of the Duke University lacrosse team. The prosecutor said he had a hard case of rape. But the boys were innocent, virtually framed. What if those parents hadn't stayed true to the belief that their kids were good kids? Isn't it possible that if parents don't think their kids are innocent, the kids then will never forgive them and, maybe, respond by becoming bad? Isn't this a self-fulfilling prophecy?

A: I agree with you. I am very upset by this video as well and as a psychologist, I'd like very much to offer a psychological explanation for what I've seen on the TV screen. That would not only make things easy for me, but it should make things comforting for you. I'd find something to explain this abhorrent behavior and it would not apply to you, your household or your daughter. That way, bad things won't happen to her and she won't do anything bad herself.

Sorry. I cannot find a general underlying psychological explanation. Each child, each family unit, and each neighborhood are unique. Together all of these factors combine in unique ways to the general environment - and all that, taken together, is what influences our children. One parent's response to a child may be correct while another parent, responding the same way, is going to be making a mistake. So it's probably a bit unsatisfying for me to say "Be Alert!" Be open to all possibilities! Be painfully honest with yourself about your child and be even more painfully honest about who you are and what that might mean to your child. Still, unsatisfying or not, that's what I have to do.

Before trying to examine your own parenting, you have to recognize that you simply cannot control your child's environment. For many years, research has focused on the possible effects TV or movie violence has on young minds. Most of the research concludes that there is an effect -and not, as you may have guessed, a good one. Maybe the violent girls -and their alleged male collaborators - were affected by what they saw on television. Maybe, too, they decided to post their exploits on the internet because they had learned -mislearned, is more like it -that there is no such thing as bad publicity. The current infatuation with celebrity, particularly acute among the young, teaches that fame -no matter what for - is the ultimate reward. Well, these girls are -for the moment--famous.

Another possibility strikes me -but it is one that I know of no research to back up. I'll plunge ahead anyway. It's possible these girls distanced themselves from what they allegedly did by posting it on the internet. That made it a virtual attack, not a real one. And they were, they said, responding to what their victim had previously said about them on the internet. This has been the stuff of teenage tiffs since time immemorial -but it has been transported, if that's the right word, to cyberspace. Blurring virtual life with real life -What's real? What's virtual? -- has to be approaching danger.

Young people of today are different from young people of the past in many ways -their toys, for instance (cell phones, etc.) but also in their status. Young people are consumers and in America the consumer is king. Years ago, kids had no money and so no one cared what they thought. Now because they have disposable income and are peculiarly susceptible to fads, society pretends to admire them. Being young is wonderful. Being young is wise. Being young is hip and slim and all the things society admires. Being young, really, means getting your pocket picked.

All this reinforces a young person's sense of personal power and the belief -the immature conviction --that whatever they do is right..

So, perhaps one of the first things to do is to go back to parenting your child. This society has tended to focus too much on the cult of youth and allows kids too much freedom. You are not their friend. That's the reality. You are the one with the power. That, too, is the reality. A parent deserves the respect of position, age and experience. You are their guide through the realities of life. You are the one to make the determination of what their limits are. Respecting your child doesn't mean letting them determine totally what their path is. Respecting your child means loving them for whomever they are, while giving them the tools to function well in the world we live in. You are the one at the moment who knows better.

After having taken into account the influences from the outside, only then can we try to understand what goes on in our unique family unit. Yes, you need to support your child, so that he/she knows they are a part of a secure family unit. But you also don't want to idealize or be blind to issues your child has. By being aware of who they are, you can give them the love they need to find the tools to function well and successfully. Reality means facing some harsh truths, including for instance their inability to make friends easily...or their inability to control their frustrations...or their distress at their inability to compete scholastically or athletically ... or anything else that can bring them pain and make them seek an escape of some kind.

And of course don't forget your own issues. Many parents analyze their children's needs through the filter of their own childhood. Be careful that you are not over protecting your child because as a child you felt overly exposed to the world. Or don't defend your child's every action because you felt that you were not fully supported by your parents. Your child's life is his or her own. Their experience is not your experience. The world has changed. Move on with it.

So, do we need to psychologically understand these girls that allegedly beat up another girl? I don't think so. The proper place for psychology is way before these actions took place. Maybe they need treatment. But certainly they deserve punishment.