Are ‘mean girl mums' raising bullies?

Are mums to blame for 'mean girls'?
Are mums to blame for 'mean girls'? 

What would Mean Girls' Regina George and her posse become almost 14 years later?

Probably mothers with their own children yet still competitive, cliquish and passing judgements - this time on other mums and kids. Researchers have labelled these women as 'mean girl mums' - girls who were mean teenagers and grew up to become mean mums.

You know the type of mum. She criticises your parenting style, says nasty things on Facebook, and gossips about kids and their parents behind their backs.

Behaviour rooted in jealousy

Amanda* and her daughter Rachel* have had first-hand experience of a mean girl mum. "One of my close friends (not anymore) had a knack for teasing young kids until it became distressing for the child. It started with small things; disapproving looks, rolling eyes or comments said with a laugh."

"She started commenting on what I fed my daughter and that Rachel had taught her child bad behaviour. She told Rachel things like 'you'll be short when you grow up with small boobs like your mum' in front of me. I felt her behaviour was rooted in jealousy as she often compared our children," says Amanda.

Clinical psychologist Azza Brown says she has heard examples of mothers telling another child off in the park or playground. These mothers often meddle in children's conflicts, often belittling the child they see as the offender.

Other mums 'social engineer' according to Lisa Barr who blogs at GIRLilla Warfare: A Mom's Guide to Surviving the Suburban Jungle. Social engineering means using sneaky or devious tactics to choose which children hang out with theirs. Lisa wrote a post in 2015 about the different stories she'd heard about mean girl mums - it resonated with so many people that the post got over 800,000 shares.

Closer to home, with bullying starting earlier at pre-school level in Australia, are mean girl mums actually influencing their own children to become bullies?

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Relational aggression not taken seriously

Research published by NYU Steinhardt classified the phenomenon of mean girls under 'relational aggression' – harming others by manipulating relationships. Interestingly, a study on mothers referenced in this paper said they thought physical aggression shown by their children was more harmful than if their child tried to exclude or socially ostracise someone.

In short, tactics like silent treatment, gossiping, excluding and spreading rumours aren't taken as seriously. When the child realises that their behaviour isn't getting a negative reaction from mum, it validates their thinking that what they're doing is not wrong.

Mums using psychological control

Extending this to mean girl mums, the same study found mothers who manipulated their own social relationships for a purpose also used psychological control on their children. They induced guilt or expressed disappointment repeatedly in order to control the parent-child relationship and their child's behaviour.

When mums used psychological control, it prevented their child from developing their own social competence.

Role modelling

Because of helicopter parenting, many mums today are overly involved in their child's life. They often behave unacceptably like excluding certain children from birthday parties - a type of relational aggression behaviour or social engineering.

Brown says, "If a child sees their parent excluding other people, then they're likely to copy the same behaviour but do it at their level to another child. It also gives them a sense of power, which they learn from a young age."

"To stop your child becoming a bully or being bullied, it's important for parents to exhibit the right type of behaviours, encourage problem solving and act with kindness. Equip children with the tools to handle their own conflicts rather you than rushing headlong into meddling or telling off another child in a social situation," says Brown.

Start conversations early

Manager of Alannah & Madeline Foundation's National Centre against Bullying, Sandra Craig says, "Conversations about bullying should start before it happens – in the home, the sporting club or in the classroom. The conversation should be clear that bullying is a behavioural pattern, such as intention to harm, power, and repetition. Children also need to know that bullying is not acceptable and can be very hurtful and destructive to its victims."

Handling a mean girl mum

"If an adult is bullying a child, then this issue needs to be handled at a parent level. Some parents can become unreasonable or defensive about their actions - the main thing here is to protect the child. It's quite intimidating for a young child to be attacked by an adult and it can cause anxiety. Get the school involved in setting boundaries if it's happening at school," says Brown.

As for Amanda she gradually distanced herself from her friend. "On the odd occasion that we bump into this mum, my child will refuse to interact with her. I know Rachel can sense my frustration with this mum and the other woman has sensed it too – she's finally stopped saying those mean things to my daughter but we're no longer close friends," says Amanda.

*names have been changed.