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It isn’t always easy for mothers to know when our daughters are negotiating the natural ups and downs of friendship …

 

… or facing exclusion or humiliation from a clique of mean girls.

According to Paulette Janus, LCSW, who counsels children and teens at the AFG Guidance Center in Kenilworth, being part of a group starts becoming very important to girls in middle school as they explore their social world on a bigger scale.

A Healthy Friendship Group
Having a group of girlfriends is a good thing. It provides a network of support and fun and helps a girl develop her identity. A healthy friendship group gives girls a sense of security while allowing them to explore their individuality and still interact with girls from outside the circle.

“We all need to have our place and belong somewhere,” says Janus, “it builds self esteem, and resilience and feeds our identity.”

Janus distinguishes these healthy groups from cliques, which are closed, exclusive and demand a high degree of conformity.  Cliques are usually very visible at school, and often considered to be the “popular” girls.

Cliques Devastate Within and Without
Girls in a tight-knit clique can treat outsiders badly—often using covert means such as spreading rumors, gossip, excluding them from social events, or making fun of clothes or hairstyles. Being treated this way can be devastating, but the mean girls are often dealing with their own problems.

Janus says, “The leaders are usually the ones that have the lowest self esteem. They bully others to gain attention and a sense of control and power that they don’t have elsewhere. But for others (in the clique), it’s driven by a sense of belonging combined with fear of being left out if you don’t go along with some of the negative things.”

The fear of getting kicked out creates an environment of insecurity and groupthink within the clique. There are often rules about how to dress, who to hang out with and where to go. The group becomes so powerful and controlling that it prevents girls from doing the chief work of adolescence—figuring out who they are as individuals.

Molly, 13, describes a certain clique at her junior high. “It’s like a competition to stay in that group. They talk about each other behind their backs and there are lots of fights and drama.”

Zoe, 17, a senior at a large public suburban high school says, “You can tell which groups you definitely don’t want to be in. The girls are so mean to each other.”

Bigger High Schools Less Cliquey
Parents are often afraid of big schools, feeling their kids will get lost in the crowd, but sometimes, smaller school environments can be more stressful.

“Smaller schools can be more cliquey,” says Janus. “There aren’t as many opportunities to fit in.”

Being anonymous has advantages. With a diverse student population, it’s easier to find a group to relate to and, since it’s impossible to know everyone, the concept of “popularity” doesn’t hold up. Both Janus and the girls agree that things get easier in high school as the girls become more secure and mature. Still, some conflict between even good friends is normal.

Supporting Your Daughter
So, how can we support our daughters as they negotiate this tricky arena? Janus says that from an early age, we need to know our child and find activities and groups where she’ll feel comfortable and respected. If she’s not into soccer, a theater class might be a better fit—she’ll make friends more easily and feel better about herself.

When it comes to dealing with mean girl behavior, communication is key. If your daughter expresses a problem, don’t try to smooth it over or fix it. Listen and ask lots of questions like, “How did that make you feel?” or “What did you do then?” Sometimes your daughter doesn’t need you to do anything, she just needs to be heard.

However, if she tells you can’t handle the abuse or if you notice she is withdrawn, sad, or avoiding school—you’ve got to step in. Janus recommends working with the school to stop the bullying behavior and consulting a therapist if necessary.

Lastly, even though these issues can trigger painful memories from our own girlhoods, we need to remember that these are our daughter’s problems, not our own.