Since fifth grade Carey, Grace and Allison were a trio of traveling plaid pinafores at their private school in Chicago’s far south suburbs.
But Carey’s heart said hello to her belly button one day in seventh grade when her two BFFs strutted past her to a new lunch table.
Without warning, Grace cozied up with a new crew of girlfriends and Allison slid right along on her skirt-tail. The pain piled on when Carey’s former friends turned to publicly making fun of every little thing she did—the way she laughed, the answers she gave in history class.
"They wanted new friends. There was no point in being around me because we were already friends," says Carey Hayes, now 13 and going to eighth grade at a public school in North Carolina.
"I finally thought if they’re going to avoid me, I’ll just forget it," she says. "I just sat alone at lunch and got used to it."
Handling girl politics
It’s only a matter of time before your daughter suffers her first round of girl politics, says author Nancy Rue in her recent book Girl Politics, designed to help tweens stay friends with themselves as they navigate the nasty realms of cliques, mean girls and frenemies.
Yesterday they were BFFs, today they are arch enemies. Girl politics is no new entry to Dear Diary, but it is showing up in more sophisticated forms like Facebook and cyberbullying. Tween girls (between ages 8-12) are learning newer and nastier tricks from the pros, as Hollywood ingénues like Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie or L.C. and Heidi of "The Hill" model the most popular love-hate, friend-enemy or ‘frenemy’ pairs.
About half of the pre- and early-teen girls Crystal Lake therapist Susan Coe sees wind up in her office because of peer problems, she says.
The fallout comes in the form of depression and anxiety. Girls who are victims of tweenie meanies either plunge into schoolwork as an escape or find themselves unable to concentrate on studies at all, Coe says.
"I don’t know if the problem is worse now than in my day, but there are more weapons with technology," she says.
Malicious messages now move through new media like texting, e-mail and doctored or unflattering Photoshop images. In her parent’s days, girls did battle with finger-pointing like "she dresses funny" or "her hair-do’s weird." In the instant message era, it’s "she had an abortion" or "she sleeps around."
"There were always rumors, but in my day, they weren’t as cruel. Today’s rumors are more lewd, more graphic," Coe says.
Parents can help best by not punishing or protecting girls through trying to restrict their interactions with others, says Tim Hayes, Coe’s partner at C and H Counseling Solutions.
"It’s a matter of helping girls establish boundaries and knowing what is acceptable among friends and what is not," Hayes says.
A girl thing
Girls are nearly twice as likely to be on the giving or getting side of cyberbullying as boys, according to a Clemson University study, and are behind more than half—61 percent—of in-person bullying incidents, another long-term study shows. Over the 1990s and early 2000s, the number of girls arrested for assault swelled 41 percent, according to U.S. Justice Department reports.
Why do teachers and counselors witness girl politics and not boy politics?
"It doesn’t mean one gender is more overtly mean than the other," says Rue, who has penned 105 books for teens and preteens.
"Boys rise to the top of the pecking order, the food chain, by approaching issues of social order more through play or physical means—a shove or a punch on the soccer field and it’s over," she says.
But, for girls, peer relationships are emotional and all-important.
"When a girl’s best friend moves away, it seems her world is over," Rue says. "That best friend is so vital to her self-image."
Though mean girls tend to grow into mean teens and coeds, the problem is nastiest in sixth through eighth grades, Coe says. When elementary girls funnel into middle schools, they face a whole new social universe. The more adventurous seek out new alliances and often trade in old pals for fresh faces.
"Those left behind are faced with the tough choice of ‘Should I trust these new people I don’t know well and make friends with them? Or should I stick with my old friends and the possibility of rejection?" she says.
That’s the stuff that cliques are made of, Rue says.
"A clique happens because girls are so insecure in their relationships they fear if they let anybody else in, it can mess this up," she says. "It’s not so much meanness; it’s really insecurity."
The emotional rollercoaster plummets when girls "see their old friends were not such good friends," Coe says.
Crossing mean streets
In Girl Politics, Rue rolls out a road map girls and parents can use to navigate the mean streets of cliques and factions. There have always been really mean girls and peer abuse, but that doesn’t make it right, she says in her book. This generation of girls can be the one to stop cruel behavior so that girls who come after can grow up without suffering emotional scars inflicted by their own kind.
As Rue says when she gets down to the nitty-gritty, here’s the deal:
n Refuse to be a part of any kind of bullying. Girls can get caught up in negative habits even though they really don’t intend to hurt anyone.
n Don’t use labels such as mean girls, popular kids, losers, freaks or even bully. "You have to know that she is a girl who bullies, but don’t forget that she probably has her good qualities too."
n Walk away when rumors start to fly. Gossip is no good if no one wants to hear it.
n Don’t laugh at put-down gags. They are hurtful even if the brunt of the joke doesn’t hear them.
n Get to know kids who aren’t part of your group and encourage your friends to do the same. This saps the power from mean girls and makes the school atmosphere less competitive.
n Don’t follow the leader. Be your own leader. Don’t let others control how you treat people.
n Include people who don’t have other friends. You can stop bullying before it starts by helping isolated girls build confidence.
n Form an anti-bullying group to take action against bullying and help others stand up to mean girls.
Be me, not mean
In the end, experts agree, girls can rely on their conscience and find out what it means to be themselves. That means being completely honest without pretending to be anything they aren’t. It means not doing things that feel unnatural, like copying the way others dress and talk, or pretending to be interested in things they are not.
Most of all, being a real nice girl means making up your own mind according to what you know is right or wrong. That’s what Carey did when she found that, even when she moved clear across the country, she couldn’t out-run the cliques and mean girls.
They’re everywhere, she sighs.
"I learned to listen to myself and realize that when my conscience tells me the thing to do, everything falls out as it should," she says. "It all clears up and balances."
The boots and the doormat
One friend always gets her way. She’s so bossy no one argues with her and that totally works for her.
The fix: The doormat has to get assertive by saying what she needs, wants and thinks in a firm, polite way.
The mind-reading game
Friends expect each other to know what they’re thinking or feeling without being told. "You know why I’m mad at you," for example.
The fix: Remind your friend you’re not a mind-reader and you need her to tell you what’s on her mind. Promise her you’ll do the same for her.
The rumor tumor
It might be the second or third time the story’s told, but it gets longer, juicier and probably a whole lot more false every time it’s repeated.
The fix: Go right to the person being talked about and ask her.
The green-eyed monster
One friend gets that pinched feeling when her BFF gets or does something better than the other.
The fix: Recognize it for what it is and turn jealousy into a compliment by telling her you’re proud of her.
Friends feel they have to be absolutely alike by wearing identical outfits, using the same slang and being in all the same activities.
The fix: Show your friend you admire her by complimenting her rather than trying to be her mirror image.
Friends use words that do no one any good, like making promises they don’t keep, telling secrets, exaggerating the truth to make a better story or saying things that were better left unsaid.
The fix: Make a pledge to each other to be careful with words, being specific about what that means.
Source: Girl Politics by Nancy Rue ($7.99, amazon.com)
Robyn Monaghan is a freelance writer and mom living in Plainfield.