How to Deal With Mean Girls in Adulthood

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Mean girl behavior does not end in high school. You're likely to encounter adult "mean girls," too. You might have to stand alongside them at youth sporting events, sit next to them at a parent-teacher association meeting, or work with them.

Adult Mean Girl Behavior

What most people refer to as "mean girl behavior" is really relational aggression, which is a specific type of bullying designed to harm the social relationships and status of an individual. Essentially, people who engage in relational aggression aim to make you look bad to others. Additionally, they may try to intimidate you by threatening to leave the relationship you have with them.

Although it can be referred to as "mean girl" behavior, relational aggression is not restricted to girls and women. Anyone can participate in this type of bullying. The motivation for this behavior can be anything from jealousy to the desire for popularity and power.

The hallmarks of relational aggression include:

  • Cyberbullying: Rude comments on your posts, sharing videos or photos of you without your permission, or impersonating you online are all examples of cyberbullying.
  • Gossiping: The bully may spread rumors about you to your friends, family, or co-workers.
  • Harassment: You may feel cornered by a "mean girl" who goes out of their way to bother you on a regular basis. Are you finding them unavoidable, even if you try to ignore them?
  • Intimidation: A bully may even go so far as to threaten to harm you. A less overt form of intimidation may look like a warning for you to stay away from friends over whom they are territorial.
  • Ostracizing: Maybe you've found out you've been left out of the group text or not invited to an important meeting. Or you're feeling awkward at a gathering because there is someone trying to purposefully ignore you.
  • Verbal insults: A bully will often resort to demeaning remarks about your personality or appearance, or they will employ juvenile behaviors like name-calling.

Sometimes, a mob mentality prevails, and peers will join in the attacks. Other times, friends and co-workers may remain silent bystanders to the bullying. When this happens, it only magnifies the feelings of helplessness, insecurity, and low self-esteem of the bully's target. 

How to Deal With Relational Aggression

If you are experiencing relational aggression, rest assured there are different ways you can attempt to deal with it.

Project Confidence

Bullies versed in relational aggression often have the uncanny ability to discern when they can control and manipulate a situation. Just like the saying goes, "Don't let them smell your fear." Try to project confidence when a bully comes around. They'll do their best to rattle you, but if you don't let it seem like their behavior affects you, they may back down.

It might be easier said than done, but try to avoid looking nervous, insecure, or defeated.

Adult bullies are less likely to try their tactics on you again if you appear confident and in control.

Recognize What You Can Control

Remember: You have no control over what other people say or do. But you do have control over your response. No matter what an adult "mean girl" says or does, remain polite or professional. Try to keep your responses free of emotion and anger.

And if you cannot respond in a calm manner, simply walk away. Then, brainstorm how to deal with the situation in the future so you can be prepared if there is another attack.

Stand Up for Yourself

Learn how to be assertive and self-confident. If you lack these skills, take classes or read articles on how to improve your confidence and self-esteem. It is possible to defend yourself in a respectful manner without being aggressive or mean in return.

Setting clear boundaries can be a powerful skill. For instance, be direct with a bully and tell them that their negative remarks will not be tolerated. If you're dealing with this person in the workplace or in a volunteer situation, indicate that you plan to report any further abuse to an authority.

Bullies want their targets to be passive about their behavior. Show them that they made a mistake in harassing you, and they will learn to leave you alone.

Continue to Work Hard

If you have a workplace bully, don't allow their behavior to derail you at work. Don't fire off angry emails or talk with other co-workers about what is happening. Doing so creates drama and gives the "mean girl" exactly what they want. 

Instead, focus on continuing to produce high-quality work and have fulfilling relationships with your other teammates. Don't allow the turmoil caused by someone else’s actions let you fall behind on projects.

Of course, you may want to take action by reporting any abuse or harassment to your human resources (HR) department.

Disengage From the Conversation

If you are a bystander to adult relational aggression, excuse yourself from a rumor-filled conversation by indicating you have to make a call or that you have a meeting to attend. If you provide an audience for gossip, you will continue to be sought out.

One way to stop a bully is to take away their audience. Help put an end to gossip by not participating.

It is important to report unjust behavior to a supervisor or HR. You also can offer to befriend the person being targeted.

And if you are the target, disengaging and removing yourself from harassment instead of responding may be the best course of action, too.

Report the Behavior

Do not allow the bullying to continue. Contact human resources or your supervisor. It’s also a good idea to keep a record of all the bullying incidents including dates, times, and witnesses. Keep all electronic correspondence, especially if the office "mean girl" is a workplace cyberbully. 

When you do report the behavior, be sure to remain calm and stick to the facts. Avoid being emotional or calling the bully disparaging names (as much as you may want to). Getting emotional may cause your supervisor to focus on your feelings rather than on the issue at hand.

Find Healthy Ways to Cope

You may have tried a number of ways to deal with bullying and find that it's taking a while to get under control. As much as you want a quick resolution to a bullying situation, the reality is that it could take some time to resolve.

In the interim, you may feel stressed and frustrated. There are different strategies that you can employ to help you manage these emotions. Some things to consider include:

  • Exercising: Lower your stress by doing some cardio. Try following a dance video at home, going for a run, swimming at the gym, joining a team sport, or taking a kickboxing class.
  • Forest bathing: Known as shinrin-yoku, forest bathing involves being in nature as a way to relax. A 2019 study noted that hanging out in the woods can reduce cortisol (aka stress hormone) levels.
  • Having a hobby: Art making has been shown to reduce stress in those who participate. There are so many mediums from which to choose when it comes to crafting: painting, woodworking, jewelry making, sculpting, crocheting, scrapbooking, collaging, photography, etc. Other hobbies to think about are playing musical instruments, learning chess, bird watching, playing video games, doing puzzles, or building models.
  • Journaling: Writing about your day could help you gather your thoughts and objectively look at scenarios. It could also release the stress of a bully burden by having your written pages carry your worries instead of your mind and body.
  • Practicing mindfulness: Meditation, breathing, and mindfulness techniques are worth checking out. Not only could they help with overall stress management, but also they might help ground and calm you in a confrontational moment.
  • Volunteering: Aiding other people, animals, or causes offers a great opportunity to do something positive, as well as take your mind off of the stress in your life. Volunteering has the potential to boost the self-esteem of those you help and increase your own self-worth in the process.

Another bonus of engaging in different coping strategies is that they'll often introduce you to new, like-minded people. If bullying is an issue in your current social circle, you could instead find yourself getting to know your art class buddies, animal shelter co-volunteers, or volleyball teammates.

Additionally, you'll want to surround yourself with the family and friends who support you. Remind yourself that there are people that do care about and want the best for you.

When to Get Help

Pay attention to your feelings and emotions when dealing with an adult bully. If your mental or physical health is suffering, you should not hesitate to seek help from a professional. A therapist can address symptoms of anxiety, depression, or low self-esteem that you may experience. They can also offer additional coping skills and strategies for dealing with a bully.

A Word From Verywell

Dealing with "mean girl" behavior can be exhausting. If you feel emotionally drained, depressed, or anxious, contact a counselor. If you do not have a counselor to call, ask your doctor for a recommendation.

It's never a good idea to ignore the effects of bullying. You need to address relational aggression before it takes its toll on you. Coping strategies are worth a try, and above all, remember that bullying is not your fault. You are not alone, and there is support available.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do you deal with mean women?

    There are different ways you can try to deal with mean women. If you are unable to disengage from a bully's bad behavior, try your best to be confident, assertive, and professional in their presence.

  • What causes women to be mean to other women?

    While there could be any number of reasons a person might bully someone else, jealousy and a desire to heighten one's status are common.

  • Who are mean girls most likely to target?

    A bully who engages in relational aggression is looking for a situation that they can attempt to manipulate or control.

  • How do you deal with adult mean girls on social media?

    If you're a witness to bullying behavior on social media, you can call it out or report it to the platform. If you're the one being targeted by a cyberbully, you can also report the perpetrator to the platform or even file a police report about the harassment.

4 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centifanti L, Fanti K, et al. Types of relational aggression in girls are differentiated by callous-unemotional traits, peers and parental overcontrol. Behav Sci (Basel). 2015;5(4):518-536. doi:10.3390/bs5040518

  2. Ostrov J, Hart E, Kamper K, Godleski S. Relational aggression in women during emerging adulthood: A social process model. Behav Sci Law. 2011;29(5):695-710. doi:10.1002/bsl.1002

  3. Johns Hopkins Medicine. 7 heart benefits of exercise. 2021.

  4. Kaimal G, Ray K, Muniz, J. Reduction of cortisol levels and and participants' responses following art making. Art Therapy. 2016;33(2):74-80. doi:10.1080/07421656.2016.1166832

By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon, CLC is a published author, certified professional life coach, and bullying prevention expert.