Mean girls in action ... Rachel McAdams, Lindsay Lohan and Lacey Chabert.

Mean girls in action ... Rachel McAdams, Lindsay Lohan and Lacey Chabert.

“The weird thing about hanging out with Regina was that I could hate her, and at the same time, I still wanted her to like me,” says Lindsay Lohan in the cult classic (and, some would argue, her best ever role), Mean Girls. It’s a good laugh, sure, but with clique behaviour rife in groups of girls as young as three, will we be able to cut the next generation of Mean Girls off at the pass?

Boys fight with their fists, girls with their tongues

... while parents may be appalled to see this bullying in action, she says that it’s often the result of daughters mimicking their mothers. 

So said Educational Psychologist Valerie E. Besag, in her book Understanding Girls’ Friendships, Fights and Feuds. Unlike young boys, who tend to experience bullying behaviour in the form of physical altercations, the girls’ approach plays more on the emotions of others. It is the psychological nature of this warfare that makes it both hard to spot and hard to understand.

“These cliques seem to form very early on,” says child behaviour consultant Nathalie Brown, and while parents may be appalled to see this bullying in action, she says that it’s often the result of daughters mimicking their mothers. “Mum might just say something on the phone, ‘I don’t like so and so,’ and the child will pick that up and run with it.”

She also believes that parents can be responsible for giving their children excuses to exclude others. “If you have a parent who tells a child that he or she can’t play with Jimmy because he bites people, you plant the seed that it’s okay to exclude others. That child may then think it’s also okay to exclude Sam because he doesn’t wash his hands, and so on.”

In her work with Easy Peasy Kids, Brown meets with many parents who are looking to help their children with these types of friendship issues. On the whole though, she does not believe that they come from a place of malicious intent.

“A lot them are quite upset when they realise how they’ve hurt the others,” she says. “They’ve just used the wrong word in saying ‘you’re not my friend’, but they’re playing together again by lunchtime.”

Teachers are taking action against bullying

If this is inadvertent bullying, it needs to be addressed in its early stages to minimise long-term negative affects. Girls who bully others in primary school are more likely to continue to do so in high school, and with most of these interactions taking place in the playground the best weapon is education.

Teachers and other educators are well aware of the growing bullying issue, and say that it seems much more prevalent than it did twenty years ago. The statistics support this anecdote: one in every four schools is now affected by bullying, compared with one in eight (12.5 per cent) 10 years ago.

James is a primary school teacher in an inner Melbourne suburb, and says that the most common form of bullying in girls is the exclusion of others. “That’s the worst kind of exclusion and can happen in a moment, even amongst the closest of friendship groups. I’ve seen it start as early as Prep, and can often be as simple as ‘you can’t sit with us and eat your lunch because it’s not what’s cool to eat’.”

“Watching interactions in the classroom and playground is the best way to find out if someone is being excluded. Sometimes it may happen once, but if it continues then the reason behind it needs to be addressed. For kids who have been bullied, most of it comes down to trust, and being able to trust someone, that they aren’t going to be hurt again.”

There are many programs available to teachers that can help to recognise these behaviours and cultivate a more positive school environment for both the bully and the bullied. James says it is about being a focused ‘kid watcher’ and looking for signs of exclusion or intimidation. His school runs a variety of programs for social and emotional learning from within the Kids Matter framework, which focuses on emotional wellbeing and development.

Brown’s work also sits within a specific framework: Kind Eyes teaches children to look at their actions through other people’s eyes. She says it is important that they recognise that words can still hurt long after they were said. “The Kind Eyes program gives children the tools they need to be empathetic and considerate as they move through their schooling life,” she says.

No educator will claim that bullying in schools is appropriate or acceptable, but with changing attitudes and more deliberate strategies in place, the outlook is positive. As girls involved in these cliques are given constructive ways to include others and parents are armed with more tools to help their daughters at home, schools are confident that they are better positioned than ever to work toward a solution.

In the immortal words of Mean Girls’ Gretchen Wieners: “That’s so fetch!”

Have you had to deal with 'mean girls' at your daughter's school or was your daughter the instigator? How did you handle it? Leave your comment below or discuss on the Essential Kids Forums.