I have two daughters, ages 16 and 10. When they were babies, I boasted that I would be that hands-off mom who enables her girls to develop character and independence by fighting their own battles. I thought that I would equip them with the language, tools and self-confidence they'd need to stand up for themselves against mean girls and bullies. Easier said than done.
Little did I know that the girls would begin turning on each other as early as the second grade. And little did I know that I'd want more than anything to protect their tender feelings, to step in and put a stop to the madness.
It's been decades since I was in school, and I had forgotten just how horrible girls often behave toward one another: the hurtful words, the nasty gossip, the gawd-awful exclusion and the terrifying physical bullying. (Have you ever watched two teenage girls in a physical fight? Horrific.)
It's been really, really difficult, but except for one confrontation that turned physical — our daughter was physically assaulted by an older girl — I have honored my pledge to stay out of it. And I find that I'm not alone:
Stay out of it
Most of the moms I've talked to about this agree with me, particularly when the drama is purely verbal.
- If it doesn't involve bodily injury, Alicia stays out of it. "I usually just listen because most of it is just girls being girls."
- Carol never gets involved. "Girls will argue and have misunderstandings. I stay out of it — they will work it out."
- Pam silently supported her two now-grown daughters. "I think any mom has a natural instinct to want to defend her child, but I am thankful that I stayed in the background, offering advice. They always knew we were there supporting them. I think we do our children well to let them stand up for themselves!"
- Angela stops at advice. "I do give advice, but I push my daughter to fight her own battles. And I believe they will never mature unless you let them do it." Angela recalls that when she ran to her own mother about a child who wronged her, Mom always asked, "What did you do?"
- Kim hid from the drama of her three now-adult daughters. "If they're fighting, run in the opposite direction as fast as you can… unless there's blood! Seriously, I regret the times that I did get involved — it's a no-win situation."
But some moms embrace their fierce maternal instincts and intervene. Nikki (not her real name) has taken to Facebook to slam her daughter's tormentors. "I want to give them a taste of their own medicine," says Nikki. "Let them know how it feels to be shamed and teased in public. If that doesn't work, then I'm taking it to the next level — the bullies' moms. No one is going to stand up for my daughter more than I will. She needs me."
Tweens and teens can be dramatic
As a youth, I discovered that complaining to Mom about a friend has both good and bad points. It is good in the sense that Mom knows what's happening and can remind her daughter that she's always there for her. But it's bad in the sense that a daughter and her friend may easily make up and move on, while Mom continues to simmer about the way her child was wronged.
Family therapist Lisa Bahar encourages moms to consider a few things before becoming too involved:
- Have I offered to talk to my daughter in a non-judgmental way about the situation?
- Am I noticing highly volatile reactions (uncontrollable rage, crying, hysteria) in my daughter that appear to be doing more harm to her self-esteem than just atypical peer conflicts? Behavior that is disproportionate to the situation is self-destructive.
- Take time to pause after talking with your daughter and avoid the impulse to react to what her perception of the story is. Many times, the situation will appear just awful only to be completely forgotten the next day.
"As women, we model the way to deal with conflict," says Bahar, "so be aware of your own tendency to become involved in drama with your own friends and family."
Prevent escalating drama
Not everyone thinks the hands-off approach is the way to go. Psychiatrist and author Dr. Carole Lieberman was an expert witness in the case of a girl who committed suicide after being involved in girl drama and says that parents have a responsibility to step in.
"Parents, especially moms, should get involved every time their daughter is experiencing drama and catfights with other girls because these days they can blow out of proportion in a heartbeat," says Dr. Lieberman. "Ideally, moms should cultivate a bond of trust that encourages their daughters to confide all of their problems, so that it become natural."
Lieberman wants parents to "nip girl drama in the bud before it escalates into disaster, such as physical fighting, depression and suicide."
Moms can do their part
If your daughter is being bullied, Abraham encourages moms do their part on the home front to help her through it.
- Explain that the bully has an internal issue that they don't know how to cope with and that you want to help her avoid taking any of the attacks personally.
- Protect and empower her by finding ways she can defend herself from being physically hurt (find authorities to help if necessary).
- Report bullying to the police if it has reached the point of physical aggression or serious threats.
For all cases, Abraham advises to make sure to find out how she feels about any action you take — she may think it would make the bullying worse. "You want your daughter to feel comfortable coming to you," says Abraham, "not worry that you will react or act out of emotion without taking her wishes into account."
Enlist the school's help
Karen's daughter was bullied to the point of having to change schools. She gave up all of her beloved activities to avoid the ugliness she received from one particularly mean girl and her cohorts. Karen wishes she had approached the school sooner — the school and administration were already aware of the bully's pattern of behavior.
"The principal admitted to us that [the girl] had bullied other girls in the past and was a problem, but nothing was done about it," says Karen. "If the administration had only taken a stand themselves against this girl, it never would have escalated the way it did. Schools don't realize that they have the power to stop behavior immediately and give tools to talk to each other in respectful ways."
Karen is glad she intervened. "I had to show my daughter how much I loved her and that it was not her fault."
When your daughter is the instigator
"School bullying is a widespread problem affecting too much of the youth in America," say therapists and bullying experts Kim Abraham and Marney Cordner, "and bullying between girls seems to be becoming more commonplace."
When you suspect that your own daughter is the aggressor in verbal, physical or cyber harassment, you have a responsibility to address the situation with her:
- Discuss that this behavior is illegal.
- Engage in a compassionate conversation to find the root cause of the bullying.
- Explain in a non-threatening way that her behavior is a problem for both her and others, and that you would like to help her overcome this problem and find ways to better interact with others.