There is a psychological term for that thing mean girls do to each other

Keeping it this way.
Keeping it this way.
Image: Reuters/Olivia Harris
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Keeping up with girls’ friendships can be confusing at times. Friends can become outcasts at the toss of a bracelet. But if tween and teen girls call them ”frenemies,” psychologists have a more sophisticated term: “relational aggression.”

“You know it when it happens to you, “ writes Linda Stade, the research officer at Santa Maria College in Western Australia.“What distinguishes relational aggression from just being mean, is that it focuses on damaging a person’s sense of social place.” It’s like using relationships as weapons of emotional mass destruction, she says.

Relational aggression includes gossip, the silent treatment, belittling—saying something mean and then chirping “just kidding!”—and conditional friendship. All of these are incredibly painful to watch, and challenging to navigate. Stade notes that people have normalized this behavior, and worse, come to say things like “it’s just girls.”

Lisa Damour, author of Untangled: Guiding Girls through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood describes the process by which girls must separate from the cocoon of their families and “join a new tribe.” This tribe will be everything to them, but it will be filled with girls whose brain development is re-modeling from back to front, creating mayhem because it means starting with emotional changes to the brain and ending with better control.

“I can’t overstate the significance of a teenager’s tribe membership,” Damour writes. “Teenagers aren’t just looking to make friends, they are replacing the family they have withdrawn from (or at least might barely acknowledge in public) with a tribe they can feel proud to call their own.”

When that tribe casts them out, they do what they feel they must to stay in. That can result in excluding others to feel more included themselves, or accepting others’ bad behavior. Sometimes they know what they are seeing or doing is inappropriate. Other times they don’t, and need the affirmation of an adult to say, “that’s not kind, or appropriate behavior”—even when it feels painfully obvious to the adult.

Stade offers a to-do list for parents navigating these treacherous waters, acknowledging that it can be tricky since so much of can be covert or online, and girls often deny it when confronted.

Some of the tips are commonsensical: model good friendship behavior, explicitly teach kids the importance of kindness and empathy, monitor their online activity, teach them about emotional intelligence.

But the one I liked most was this: Teach kids to be “upstanders, distracters and supporters.” That means, in order, to stand up for someone being bullied or belittled; to see mean moments coming, and distract people away from them (adults usually know how to do this); and to find ways to help people who are being excluded or bullied.

Supporting “makes the victim seen and acknowledged. They aren’t alone,” Stade writes.

In the same way we should never condone aggressive behavior in boys with the toxic acceptance phrase of “boys will be boys,” we should never condone mean behavior from girls by explaining it away as the inevitable outcome of gender. Friendships will be tricky, but girls can learn to navigate them with good role models and plenty of intentional discussion.