Our daughter will be entering middle school in August. She’s bright but not overly self-confident. I know what girls of that age can be like and worry she may become the target of the "mean girls." Do you have any advice for us to help her navigate the next few years?
You’re on the right track already. Many parents worry about preparing their kids for the academic challenges of middle school, but those are a breeze compared to the social struggles.
As your letter hints, the silver bullet for surviving a Mean Girls incursion (and, yes, Mean Girls are very definitely a thing) is self-confidence. There are a number of ways to help instill this in children.
One thing that inspires confidence is knowing that loyalists have your back. Let your kids know you’re behind them, but be specific. Don’t just say, “I’m here for you.” Kids may believe it, but they doubt that at your age you have any useful aid to offer that hasn’t exceeded its expiration date. To counteract that, show them you actually do know what’s about to hit them. “If some girls start picking on you, come and talk to me about it,” gives the child more assurance that you actually know what you’re talking about.
Kids rarely come to parents for advice, so you’ll have to give it unsolicited if you suspect there’s a problem. Keep in mind that instruction alone usually goes in one ear and out the other, but stories tend to stick. So instead of just offering advice, tell them a story about you or someone you know who endured similar experiences. They’re more likely to remember it.
Teach them the golden rule. Middle school society often degenerates into a low-order, “Lord of the Flies” mentality. As a result, kids may respond to meanness by being mean in return, either to their tormentors or those of a lower caste. Teach them that good is the antidote to evil, so the path to victory lies in fighting meanness with kindness.
You might suggest that your child pray throughout the day. According to the Pew Research Center, more than half of Americans pray daily, and a number of studies have shown that it can help calm the nervous system, make people less reactive to negative emotions, and hold on to less anger. Thus it can help kids keep things in their proper perspective while building up their confidence. A key Mean Girls practice is disempowering their victims by making them feel helpless and alone; praying can help counteract that.
Social media is the source of much Mean Girl melodrama. As multiple studies show, online bullying is one reason that digital usage has led to an increase in depression, anxiety, and suicide among teens. If you lack the fortitude to avoid giving your middle schooler her own phone, at least limit the time she spends on it, monitor the apps she uses and disallow social media.
Teachers don’t always see bullying, and many students misinterpret this as us not caring or even siding with the Mean Girls. In reality, we’re just old and unobservant, but when kids come to us with concerns, we listen. No teacher wants any student to feel harassed or scared, so encourage your child to see a teacher or counselor if she ever feels that way.
Despite all the things you can do to prepare your child, the one thing you can’t do is clear her course for smooth sailing. It’s simply out of your control. What happens at school happens. But you can control what happens at home, and that might be the biggest confidence-booster you can deliver: a family that is loving, safe and supportive.
If you’re serious about offering that to your daughter, then here’s what’s out: volatile behavior, disengagement, overdrinking, selfishness and doing anything that shows you don’t love the people in your family. What’s in: encouragement, discipline, family meals, rules that set boundaries, hugs, predictability and never going to bed angry.
Against the power of such a confidence-inspiring family, the Mean Girls have little hope.