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Why girls are getting meaner younger

Child and adolescent psychologist Katie Hurley has noticed a disturbing trend: the Mean Girls-esque behaviour we usually associate with high school, or perhaps middle school, is creeping down into the elementary school years.

It’s puzzling given that girls are flourishing academically – cleaning up the awards at year-end assemblies and out-graduating men from university – yet engaging in a kind of toxic competition with one another.

Hurley is the Los Angeles-based author of a new book called No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident and Compassionate Girls. I caught up with Hurley recently to ask her what’s behind the early-blooming mean streak and what parents can do to steer their daughters in a happier direction.

Why did you decide to focus on girls for this book?

I found that I had a lot of girls coming through my office working on things like self-confidence and self-esteem, and I was seeing the effects of relational aggression trickling down. Now first and second graders are sitting on my couch talking about these very hurtful incidents that can really harm them psychologically for years to come. Because of that, I got back to running groups with girls. Girls are struggling with a variety of different sources of stress and sometimes anxiety, and we really need to teach them how to stick together, how to work together and how to empower one another.

Why do you think it is that meanness is coming up earlier? What is happening?

I think there are a variety of sources. One of the biggest things we’ve seen in the last 10 years in parenting is this concept of busy is better. And because in general girls and boys have so many opportunities that they didn’t have 20, 30 years ago, that their schedules are jam-packed. The other part we have to look at (is) this phase of toxic competition that we’ve created. While sports are a great outlet for young girls, we’ve taken a healthy outlet and made it into this red ribbon that they’ve got to run through and be the best at so they can get to college and plan their future. We start it when they’re 6 or 7 years old and girls are pitted against one another to be the best. When we do that – and it happens in music, in arts, in everything – they’re constantly being evaluated by adults. They’re not having free time and just hangout girl time; they’re having all this adult-directed time where they’re finding out how they stack up according to someone else. Well, when we do that to girls they learn that they need to step all over one another to get to the top, and that’s an unhealthy message.

While of course globally we know we have a long way to go, girls are over-performing academically compared to boys. So why are they engaged in a kind of scarcity mentality that pits them against one another? Is it just because we’ve crammed their schedules full of competitive activities?

We’re also seeing record numbers of adolescents in general with anxiety disorders, depressive disorders, just generalized stress, which isn’t necessarily a diagnosis, but does impact their ability to get to school every day and be the best version of themselves. So we have this generation of kids who are high on stress and low on coping skills. And when that happens, kids – girls and boys – turn on each other. Girls actually tell me that they’re trying really hard to be perfect. There’s this cult of perfectionism going on in girlhood. They’re trying to show their parents that they can do it all. But the result of that is they’re tired, they’re stressed out and have all of this frustration bubbling up, and they end up taking it out on each other because they don’t know what else to do.

What are some of the things parents can do to encourage their girls to engage in healthy relationships with one another?

Well, one really important piece of the puzzle is slowing down the adult-directed activities and giving girls a chance to just be girlfriends. So have girls just hang out in big groups, small groups, but just for fun – maybe a weekly movie night with the girls in the neighbourhood or a mother-daughter book club. When we give girls these opportunities, they really rise to the occasion. Finding that balance where they have time to just be girls, and hang out with other girls, is crucial right now.

By Brandy Weikle

8 February 2018 


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