Mean Girls
Filed Under (bullying)

Have you read the lastest article in the Boston Globe titled, “The Untouchable Mean Girls“?  It details a raw and painful account of a pervasive adolescent problem – bullying. 

As a tween self-esteem expert, I am asked repeatedly by parents for my opinion on the topic.  Parents stare at me, wide-eyed, like deer in the headlights paralyzed with fear and panic for their children.  Enraged by the behavior of young bullies, concerned parents virtually attack me, demanding a solution and a guarantee of safety for their children.  I wish I could devise a remedy.  But sadly, there is no easy solution to the centuries-old problem of bullying.

Social hierarchies – and the consequences of them – have existed as long as human beings have.  The chances of eliminating them are slim.  But there are time-tested recommendations that can help parents understand what does and doesn’t work in dealing with bullies.

Recommendations point away from direct parental involvement and toward the children themselves.  Like a coach on the sidelines, a parent oversees the game plan, equipping her players with stratgegies and moral support.  But it is the child who goes out on the field and plays the game.

As a teenager, I was not a victim of intense bullying, but a very close friend was.  I remember marching up to a ‘mean girl’ who was twice my size and giving her a piece of my infuriated, but naive, mind on behalf of my friend.  A gaggle of girls looked on in shocked horror – frozen and unmeddling.  It wasn’t until much later that I realized the potential danger my bravado could have caused.  Had I been less passionately defensive of my friend, I would have let fear swallow me up under the blanket of bullies.  As it turned out, my exhibition earned me a measure of respect.  More importantly, it earned a temporary reprieve from bullying for my friend.  Peer support is an excellent option in the prevention of bullying.  Safety in numbers.

Other popular recommendations for would-be victims:

  • avoidance
  • humor
  • self-talk
  • assertiveness
  • help

If we can accept that it isn’t the role of an opposing parent to confront the bully, we see that our responsibility lies in supporting and strengthening the potential victim.  This is not to say that we should prepare our children like soldiers for a war.  Rather, we build a fortress, a shield,  so resilient that the enemy would think twice about starting a battle.  No self-preserving bully would start a fight she knew she couldn’t win.

What is this line of defense made of?  Self-esteem of course.  Consider some of the signs of high self-esteem:

  • Demonstrates self-respect, self-confidence and self-awareness
  • Willing to try new activities/take on challenges
  • Accepts failure without discouragement
  • Demonstrates assertiveness, resiliency, and a sense of belonging and purpose

It is clear that these qualitites do not describe a victim.  Bullies tend to target  peers who are isolated, have poor social skills, or appear sensitive or weak.  In contrast, children with high self-esteem are equipped with indispensable inner strength.  Their self-esteem bolsters their immunity to negative influence.  These children can move through life with a smaller threat of provocation.

As a self-esteem expert, this theory makes sense to me.  On the flip side, as a mother, I shudder with worry that I haven’t sufficiently prepared my children for the jungle of life.  The mother in me wants to scream, “where is the accountability from the bullies, their parents, their teachers?!”

And then I remind myself of one essential reality.  We can only be accountable for ourselves.  We cannot change the world;  we can only change ourselves and hope that the world will follow.  So I continue to work on strengthening the self-esteem of tweens and guiding their parents to do the same.

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