If you’re the parent of a teen girl, you’ve probably experienced one (or maybe both) of the following two scenarios: watching helplessly as your daughter is hurt by the meanness of other girls; watching helplessly as your daughter inflicted meanness on others.
I have some thoughts about the emotional brutality of female adolescence, and what you, as a parent, can do about it. First, it’s important to be aware, honest, and compassionate. That means acknowledging what your child is experiencing and/or doing.
Sometimes parents are in denial. It’s hard for them to face their children’s pain and so they minimize it (“We all went through it, it’s not really that bad”). Or it can be hard to face that your child is behaving cruelly toward others (“She’s not really involved”, “So-and-so is actually the ringleader.”)
If you want to have a meaningful impact on your teenager, you need to wake up to what’s really going on. It can be rough out there, and the pain–albeit temporary, since adolescence is a temporary state–is very real.
Teen girls are often trying to validate themselves by judging others harshly, and there is a pack mentality that can set in, with everyone piling onto one victim. If your child is that victim, it is a truly awful experience for her. Before you can help her see that it is temporary, you need to full empathize with the pain.
Now here’s where it can be more challenging to be compassionate. If your daughter is the mean girl, recognize that she has various motivations that are comprehensible. Now, that doesn’t mean you should condone the behavior. But when you’re confronting your child, you need to start from a curious and open place.
Name what you’re seeing and ask what your daughter is feeling. Express confidence in her good heart. Then help her to be compassionate and empathetic toward the other girl(s). Often, it’s not that difficult for your child to place herself in the other girls’ shoes because she has, in fact, been there herself. Teen cruelty is often cyclical, with moving targets. In fact, part of why your daughter might be engaging in the mean behavior is so that she won’t stand out, i.e. won’t become a target herself.
Expressing empathy for this position and for the dilemmas she feels is not condoning behavior. It’s the first step in exploring alternatives to that behavior that are more in keeping with kindness and good character. The ideal, of course, is for your child to take a stand against all forms of meanness. But there’s a whole range of options open to her that she might not be seeing in the moment.
That’s the wisdom you can provide as a parent–a broader perspective. But to get there, you have to fully understand and accept the perspective your teen is already entrenched in. As a therapist, I know that people change once they feel understood. That’s true for parenting, too.