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Why Are There So Many 'Mean Girl' Problems in Preschool?

Photograph by Twenty20

A 4-year-old girl comes home from preschool in tears for the third time in two weeks. She says it isn’t fun anymore. She says she doesn’t like it. Her mom is confused. The preschool is play-based and hands-on. The walls are covered with bright colors and inviting themes. The play yard is stocked with toys, tricycles and play structure. The teachers make fresh play dough every morning. What’s not to like?

Upon further discussion, the truth begins to leak out. Though this little girl attends the same preschool as a close family friend, that friend no longer plays with her. She issues threats like, “You can only play house if you’re the dog,” and, “If you don’t give me the trike, I won’t be your friend anymore.”

Her mom was appropriately baffled. Was this really happening? Do preschool girls really engage in this “mean girl” stuff? The short answer is yes, but the truth is often complex.

Research shows that relational aggression is seen in preschoolers, that preschool girls are significantly more relationally aggressive and less overtly physically aggressive than preschool boys, and that relational aggression is significantly related to social-psychological maladjustment.

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That’s the bad news. The good news is that if we catch it early, we can empower girls to make positive choices with their peers. Preschool is actually the perfect setting to begin working on pro-social skills like empathy and compassion.

Relational aggression can be difficult to spot because it tends to be secretive. Watch for these acts of relational aggression in preschool girls:

· Excluding or ignoring other girls

· Building allies (ex: “Don’t be friends with her; she’s not nice to me.”)

· Placing limits on friendships (ex: “I won’t be friends with you unless…”)

· Interpreting behavior of other girls as hostile (ex: When one girl accidentally knocks over the block tower, the other tells girls on the first girl for being "mean.")

I would love to see the day when we stop using the term 'mean girls.'

The roots of relational aggression in preschool children often include rudimentary social skills. Some kids are more optimistic than others. Some are quick to frustration while others seem to have more patience. All girls develop their social-emotional skills at their own pace, and environmental factors can play a role in how young girls relate to other girls.

There are a few reasons that young girls rely on these negative strategies:

· They get what they want.

· They feel powerful, which provides a false sense of confidence.

· They mimic what they see.

· They reinforce social norms (People are not supposed to be “mean,” so calling another girl out as “mean” is in line with what they’ve been taught.)

The best way to nip this early “mean girl” behavior in the bud is to focus on teaching positive social interaction skills, both in the preschool classroom and in the home. In fact, I would love to see the day when we stop using the term “mean girls” and start teaching girls to unpack the triggers beneath the behavior, instead.

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Before you label that other girl and issue a stern warning to stay away, consider trying these strategies:

Observe your child at play

Pay close attention to how your girl relates to others. What is her personality style? Does she assert her wants and needs during play or does she let others take the lead? Does she ever steamroll over other girls to get her needs met?

Tuning in to your child’s relational style will help you guide your child through those critical early friendship-making skills. As the mom of the 4-year-old girl later discovered, her daughter’s introverted nature played a role in how she related to her peers. In fact, she spent a fair amount of time playing alone during recess because she wanted to. She needed a break from the action. The other girls, however, felt rejected.

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It’s up to us to instill empathy in our girls, and that begins with talking about emotions.

Unpack the triggers

Kids can be quick to blame others and call other kids out when the chips are down. It’s up to us to instill empathy in our girls, and that begins with talking about emotions. Instead of assuming a child is “mean” for knocking down that block tower, for example, help your child figure out the possible triggers of the behavior.

· Was she feeling jealous of the really tall tower?

· Was she feeling left out of the group?

· Was she frustrated that her tower fell down?

When we help girls understand that behaviors are a reflection of hidden emotions, we teach them to have compassion and give girls a second chance. Instead of ignoring a girl and assuming she’s “mean,” the other girls can tap into empathy and spread kindness.

Model friendship skills

Grown-ups forget that kids are always watching and listening. Our girls learn how to related to other girls by watching us. If we are quick to judge other moms, for example, our girls will learn to look for flaws and missteps. If we are compassionate and reach out to other moms, on the other hand, our girls will learn to be the helpers.

Talk about what it means to be a friend, and share your friendships with your girls. Show them what you do to care for women in your life so that your girls see firsthand the importance of lifting other women up.

Relational aggression is a form of bullying and a red flag. If you believe that your daughter engages in relational aggression with other girls, seek assistance from her teacher. If you believe that your daughter is the victim of relational aggression, don’t force her to “get over it” or mend fences. Relational aggression is very painful for little girls and can negatively impact self-esteem. It can also lead to symptoms of anxiety and depression later on. Talk to the classroom teacher. Ask for help. Be there for your daughter by listening, empathizing and helping her find healthy friendships.

For more information on raising strong, confident and compassionate girls, check out "No More Mean Girls."

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