Bullying: Is your tween girl a mean girl?

From nasty text messages to hurtful rumors, girls, just like boys, can be bullies. A large U.S. survey of children younger than age 18 found that almost 13 percent of girls had been physically bullied and that 24 percent had been emotionally bullied within the past year. Girls who are bullied face a higher risk for behavioral problems, including depression, eating disorders and suicidal thoughts and acts. Research shows that frequent bullying is more common among “tweens” than in older or younger kids.

Be alert for signs of bullying – and being bullied

Signs of being bullied may be harder to spot in girls than in boys, who are more apt to bully physically. “Girls more often use subtle, nonphysical actions, like gossiping and teasing,” says Carolyn Ievers-Landis, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital. “If your daughter is being bullied, you might notice more pronounced mood swings, changes in eating or sleeping habits or school avoidance. Another clue is ‘victim’ body language, like avoiding eye contact and hanging her head.”

Bullying takes a toll on perpetrators, too – sometimes leading to family, emotional, legal and substance abuse problems both now as children and in the future as adults. “Learn to recognize bully-like behavior,” says Dr. Ievers-Landis. “Take note if your daughter gets satisfaction from others’ pain, discomfort, fear or conflicts.”

Dr. Ievers-Landis also suggests watching your daughter for a lack of empathy, intolerance for others and blaming people for her problems.

Nip bullying in the bud

If your daughter is a bully, Dr. Ievers-Landis recommends trying these tips:

  • Discuss the problem with your daughter’s doctor, principal, teachers or school counselor.
  • Speak up if you witness your daughter making fun of someone, even if she is “just joking.”
  • Give her specific examples of the hurt she has caused others.
  • If she continues bullying, consider having her evaluated by a mental health professional.

On the other hand, if your daughter is being bullied, Dr. Ievers-Landis offers these suggestions:

  • Praise her for telling you about what has been happening, even though it was probably very difficult to do.
  • Listen to her and try your best to understand what has been happening by using “reflective listening” (that is, summarize in your own words what you think she has been experiencing).
  • Help her to brainstorm solutions to the problem, discussing the pros and cons of each one.
  • Pick one or more promising solutions to try and create a plan together.
  • Rehearse possible responses to the bully, such as practicing looking confident, as if the teasing is not bothering her.
  • Encourage her to travel to and from school and other places with a group of friends.
  • Let your daughter know that you will try to respect her wishes for how involved she would like you to be.
  • As needed, talk with your daughter’s principal, school counselor, teachers or other parents. Be thoughtful about who you talk with and how you approach each person.
  • Realize that you may need to take immediate action to alert other adults about the situation if your daughter is experiencing symptoms of depressed mood, such as increased irritability, hopelessness, change in appetite, difficulty sleeping and thoughts of self-harm.
Carolyn Ievers-Landis

Carolyn Ievers-Landis, PhD
Licensed Clinical Psychologist,
UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital
Assistant Professor,
Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine

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