9 Things You Need to Tell Your Teen About Mean People

dad comforting teen daughter
Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

The teen years are filled with all types of mean behavior from other people. From frenemies and fake friends to toxic friends and controlling people, mean behavior often leaves teens feeling hurt, puzzled, and distraught.

Sometimes when teens are cruel or mean to others, it is referred to as mean girl behavior. But what this term means is that the person is engaging in a type of bullying often referred to as relational aggression. People of any gender identity can bully in this way.

This type of behavior is particularly confusing and inconsistent. Your teen will likely have no idea how to respond without some coaching from you. One day a person may seem like your teen's best friend; the next day they may refuse to speak to them. Your job is to help your teen see that their friend is not truly a friend when they behave like this.

Where the Term 'Mean Girls' Originated

When bullying expert Rosalind Wiseman wrote the book "Queen Bees and Wannabes" in 2002, it brought attention to the ways in which tween and teen girls tend to bully one another. In the past, people assumed that bullying only consisted of name-calling and physical bullying. But Wiseman drew attention to a much subtler form of bullying sometimes called "mean girl behavior" or relational aggression.

Later, Wiseman's book inspired the movie Mean Girls, which helped emphasize that this subtle and often under-recognized type of bullying is an issue, especially among girls. This is not to say that boys don't engage in mean behavior, because they do at times. But there are some differences in the way boys and girls bully one another.

When the movie came out in 2004, Mean Girls provided viewers with a dramatization of the ways in which some girls relate to one another by forming cliques, gossiping about one another, and ostracizing others. Prior to Wiseman's book and the movie, parents and educators had trouble recognizing this type of bullying. But today, the term "mean girl" is easily recognizable as a type of subtle bullying.

Why People Engage in Mean Behavior

There are a number of reasons why people choose to be mean or use relational aggression, including peer pressure. People who engage in mean behavior often belong to cliques that use backbiting, ostracizing, rumor spreading, name-calling, and even manipulation to inflict serious psychological harm.

Sometimes people engage in mean behavior because they are jealous or envious of the person they are targeting. Other times, they bully because they are looking for power in the relationship.

Maintaining popularity or pursuing popularity also can lead some kids to be mean. As they try to climb the social ladder (or stay at the top of the social ladder), they will make fun of or bully kids who they feel threaten their status. They also will be mean as a way of reminding other people of their social status.

Some kids are even mean because they have low self-esteem or are attempting to make themselves appear better in the eyes of others. Meanwhile, other kids might engage in mean behavior because they like to create drama, find it enjoyable, or think it's funny.

What You Should Say

People who engage in mean behavior sometimes try to bully others through cyberbullying. They also engage in online gossip, sexual bullying, slut-shaming, and other hurtful tactics.

They may even be part of cliques and exclusive friendships. These exclusive relationships are reinforced on social media when people post pictures of invite-only parties and events where only a select few were included.

If your teen has friends or peers who engage in mean behavior, or if they are being targeted by someone being mean, it will likely be very painful for them. And while it may seem insignificant to you, it is a very big deal to them. Arm yourself with some thoughtful things to say about the situation.

I Understand

Probably the most important way you can help your teen is to empathize with their situation. Remind them that no one deserves to be treated the way they are being treated.

People who engage in mean behavior or relational aggression often make others feel inferior. Reinforce all the positive things they have to offer the world. Be sure your teen knows that they are not the problem. The person engaging in this behavior is to blame. Help them focus on their strengths instead.

Try to Stay Strong

People who engage in mean behavior often have a natural ability to discern whom they can control and manipulate. So encourage your teen to remain confident. They should avoid looking nervous, insecure, or defeated.

Work with your teen on being resilient and building self-esteem. People who do mean things are less likely to repeat their tactics when their victims remain confident and in control.

Teach your teen to have good posture, a strong speaking voice, and good eye contact. These characteristics often deter people who engage in bullying. Many times, they simply want an easy target.

Be Assertive

All teens need to learn how to stand up for themselves, especially against people who engage in relational aggression. The best way to do this is to learn how to be assertive. The goal is for teens to defend themselves in a respectful manner without being aggressive or mean in return.

Help your teen find a way to communicate that bullying and mean tactics are wrong and will not be tolerated. Remind your teen that those who are mean or cruel count on them being passive about their behavior. Your teen can show them that they miscalculated when they targeted them.

Consider Your Response

Remind your teen that although they have no control over what other people say or do, they do have control over their response. Stress that no matter what a person says or does, they should try to keep their responses free of emotion.

If they can’t respond in a calm manner, they should ignore the comments and walk away. Then, encourage them to talk with you or another adult about how to deal with future attacks.

Try Not to Be a Bystander

If your teen observes mean behavior, they need to know that standing by and saying nothing communicates that they accept this type of behavior. And if they don't have the courage to say something at the moment, they should walk away. When people who engage in mean behavior don’t have an active audience, they lose some of their power.

Remind your teen that it’s important to report unjust behavior to an adult. They also can befriend the target. All of these things reduce the likelihood that the person engaging in mean behavior will continue to be successful.

Keep an Adult Informed

Too many times, teens think they can or should handle mean behavior on their own. While there are a number of reasons why kids don’t tell anyone about bullying, stress to your teen that you and other adults are there to help them.

Be sure they know that you have their back and that you will work with the school to put an end to this behavior. Be committed to helping your teen through this and they will be more likely to keep you informed.

Look for Other Friends

Oftentimes, the person being mean is someone your teen thought was a friend. Your teen may be part of a group that now has become a clique; and the teens in it are no longer true friends, but frenemies.

Talk to your teen about how to spot fake friends. Also, discuss the signs that exist when a friend is a bully. Then brainstorm who might be a good friend to pal around with.

Encourage your teen to branch out and invite those people over. Be willing to help them develop friendships. Healthy friendships are one of the best deterrents of bullying.

Focus on School

Kids often allow what others say and do to impact their everyday lives. And the first thing that is impacted is their schoolwork. Help your teen change their focus. Monitoring cell phone and computer use is a good place to start. But don’t prevent your teen from using these means of communication. Instead, encourage them to spend less time on social media.

Stress that they should not let the turmoil caused by another’s actions control their life and their time. They need to take back the control and focus on something they have control over, like school or sports.

Find Healthy Ways of Coping

Let your teen know that what they are going through is hard and that they shouldn’t try to handle it on their own. Be willing to listen to them without judging or trying to fix things. Let them know that you are a safe person to talk to. And if they don't want to talk to you, help them find someone they can confide in.

Also, be aware of the consequences of long-term bullying. These can include eating disorders, body image issues, PTSD, self-harming behavior, depression and even thoughts of suicide.

If your child is having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

Don’t be afraid to get outside help for your teen. It is not a sign of weakness to seek out medical professionals and counselors. In fact, it shows wisdom. Do everything you can to help your teen cope with mean behavior. You will be glad you did.

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. Hellström L, Beckman L. Adolescents' perception of gender differences in bullyingScand J Psychol. 2020;61(1):90-96. doi:10.1111/sjop.12523

  2. Centifanti LC, Fanti KA, Thomson ND, Demetriou V, Anastassiou-Hadjicharalambous X. Types of relational aggression in girls are differentiated by callous-unemotional traits, peers and parental overcontrolBehav Sci (Basel). 2015;5(4):518-536. doi:10.3390/bs5040518

  3. Shetgiri R. Bullying and victimization among childrenAdv Pediatr. 2013;60(1):33-51. doi:10.1016/j.yapd.2013.04.004

  4. Varjas K, Talley J, Meyers J, Parris L, Cutts H. High school students' perceptions of motivations for cyberbullying: an exploratory study. West J Emerg Med. 2010;11(3):269-73.

Additional Reading

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