How to Spot the 6 Signs of a Mean Girl

Two mean girls whispering about another girl in class.
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Nothing is more painful for a young girl than being ostracized at school or excluded from a party. In fact, sound social connections are vital for the healthy development of pre-teen and teen girls.

But sometimes that need for social interaction is made more challenging or painful by a covert type of bullying commonly known as "mean girl behavior." It's important that parents and educators know how to identify when girls are using these mean girl behaviors and when to intervene before the bullying escalates.

What Is a Mean Girl?

In 2002, bullying expert Rosalind Wiseman wrote the book "Queen Bees and Wannabes," which brought attention to the ways in which pre-teen and teen girls tend to bully one another. In her book, Wiseman described how some girls can be bullied or teased mercilessly by other girls for wearing the wrong outfit or for dating the wrong person.

She also highlighted how some girls are branded with a reputation they cannot shake or pressured into conforming to a group or risk being kicked out—all of which are subtle forms of bullying known as "mean girl behavior" or relational aggression.

Because mean girl behavior doesn't always involve some of the more familiar and stereotypical forms of bullying like name-calling or physical bullying, it initially wasn't easy for parents and educators to identify. In fact, some people didn't consider this type of behavior bullying until the release of Wiseman's book.

Later, Wiseman's book inspired the movie Mean Girls, which helped emphasize that this often under-recognized type of bullying is an issue. The movie also provided viewers with a dramatization of the ways in which some girls form cliques, climb the social ladder, and use relational aggression to bully and control others.

Since then, many bullying experts have used the phrase "mean girls" as a way to identify relational aggression because the term is more recognizable to the general public.

Overview of Mean Behavior

When it comes to bullying, social scientists have discovered that typically boys and girls bully in different ways. For instance, boys tend to use physical bullying more frequently while girls may tend to engage in relational aggression.

This is not to say that boys don't use mean behavior to control situations and that girls are never physically aggressive. Both genders engage in all types of bullying, but there are some gender differences in the way kids bully one another and its impact.

In fact, one study found that it's particularly important to be aware of mean behavior in girls because it tends to negatively impact girls more than it does boys. Additionally, they discovered that girls who gossip, try to ruin relationships, and exclude others show very low levels of empathy and concern for others, as well as adjustment problems.

Meanwhile, being bullied by a mean girl (or boy) is a kind of social torment that often exists without parents and teachers even noticing. This mean behavior may include tactics like backbiting, ostracizing, rumor-spreading, and manipulation, which can cause serious psychological harm to their targets. The result often leaves those targeted feeling bewildered and upset with no clear understanding of why they were being victimized.

In addition to in-person bullying, "mean girls" also engage in cyberbullying. They target others online using gossip, harassment, hurtful comments, and even slut-shaming. Those who are being targeted or excluded also are hurt when pictures of events and social activities that they were left out of are posted on social media. In the past, this information may not have always been on their radar.

Relational Aggression

There are a number of reasons why kids engage in relational aggression including everything from climbing the social ladder to peer pressure. And yet, adults often don't recognize that this behavior is even taking place because it easily flies under the radar. What's more, some adults may think being mean is not a significant issue and believe that experiencing it will build resilience.

But research has shown the effects of bullying can be devastating and long-lasting—even for mean girls. For instance, girls who are relationally aggressive may use control and manipulation to accomplish what they want, which can lead to long-term unhappiness and even depression.

Moreover, girls who use mean behavior tend to set high standards for themselves and others. This trend toward perfectionism can even lead to addictive behaviors and even eating disorders.

What to Look For

To spot mean behavior, observe how a girl interacts with other girls, and pay attention to signs that reveal how she feels about herself. Girls who are hard on themselves may have a tendency to be just as hard on other people. Here are the top six warning signs that a girl is engaging in mean girl behavior.

Struggles With Envy

When it comes to mean behavior, envy is often at the root of the issue. Whether it's clothes, looks, boyfriends, or even grades, girls who engage in mean behavior are often willing to go to great lengths to come out on top. This may include attempting to ruin another person's credibility or even hurting the person they are envious of.

For instance, girls who struggle with envy and mean behaviors may spread rumors, boycott another girl’s parties, talk behind her back, or even take steps to destroy her relationships and grades. Overall, girls who use mean behavior often struggle to acknowledge anything good about other people due to envy.

Appearance-Focused

Mean girls are often overly concerned with appearance. They may place a high priority on their clothing, their make-up, and even their weight. Likewise, they may zero in on these things in others, pointing out everything from acne and weight gain to clothing choices and hairstyles.

Mean girls may even withhold kindness and friendship from anyone who does not meet their physical standards. These behaviors are sometimes motivated by a sense of insecurity—they may fear that if the people they surround themselves with are less than perfect, people will realize that they are less than perfect as well.

Status-Focused

Even though they may not act like it, mean girls care a great deal about what others think of them. They consider how everything looks to others from where they live and how they dress to what car they drive and who they date. If these things are less than desirable, they will find a way to cover them up.

Mean girls have a strong desire to be popular and in charge at school. Their goal is to be at the top of the social ladder; and they will sometimes do anything to get there, including using other people.

It is not uncommon for a mean girl to befriend someone based on the belief that the person can help them improve their status. Additionally, those who engage in mean behaviors tend to bully others who threaten their status.

For instance, if they perceive another girl as a threat to their status or popularity, they may use relational aggression and other mean behaviors to attempt to eliminate the threat she poses.

Troubles With Friendship

One surefire way educators and parents can spot a mean girl is to look at how she relates to other girls. If she is regularly in little skirmishes with other girls or is surrounded by drama, there may be more to it than just normal conflict.

Mean girls are often labeled "frenemies" by their peers because of their tendency to engage in hurtful behaviors. In fact, even people they claim to be friends with may become targets. Girls who regularly engage in mean behavior may cause others to wonder what they say when they're not around. There is a tremendous lack of trust when it comes to relating with girls who use mean behaviors.

Belonging to a Clique

Mean girls usually have an exclusive group of friends that they do everything with. Once the group is established, it's rare that they invite others to be part of their friend group. Consequently, their friend group may appear to outsiders like a clique simply because it is so hard for other people to be accepted by the group.

Within cliques, there are usually unspoken rules or requirements for being part of the group; they may include physical aspects like looks, hairstyles, or clothing choices.

Issues With Control

Many mean girls demonstrate controlling behaviors. In their relationships, they often emerge as the ones in charge. As a result, other girls follow their lead because they are afraid of being forced out of the group or becoming a target. Given the difficult position they find themselves in, some girls will do anything to maintain their status within the group including becoming bullies themselves.

To these girls, what others in the group think and say is a priority to them. They are especially concerned about what the leader says. Because these girls do not speak up, they are just as guilty of mean behavior as the leader of the group. They allow fear of losing their status in the group dictate their actions.

A Word From Verywell

Unfortunately, mean behavior has become a pervasive part of middle school and high school for many girls—and it can even continue into college and adulthood. So it's important that educators and parents identify mean behavior and address it head-on.

Expecting kids to work it out is not effective when it comes to bullying behaviors. Remember: Bullying almost always involves a power imbalance. So, those on the receiving end often feel powerless to make the bullying stop. They need your support in order to navigate this difficult experience—even when the bullying is limited to mean behaviors.

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