We often tell young girls to look out for signs of toxic friendships, but we are less likely to praise the qualities of healthy relationships. We assume that values in relationships are individualized and that girls will learn from experience. Researchers at the University of British Columbia have pointed out this discrepancy in how we educate girls about building relationships through the anti-bullying curriculum in schools.
The Development of the Mean Girl Stereotype
Associate Professor John-Tyler Binfet, a researcher in the School of Education at the University of BC, says that “teenagers often receive a negative reputation, sometimes showcased in mainstream media reports of bullying, cyber harassment or cafeteria exclusion.” We perpetuate this stereotype by glamorizing mean girls in the media and framing conversations in school around how to stand up to bullies, not how to prevent bullying among peers. This operates on the assumption that meanness, competition, and jealousy are common themes in female relationships, rather than mutual support, kindness, and empathy.
Just like the “boys will be boys” myth, we are quick to offer the “girls your age are mean” to middle school girls experiencing low self-esteem and social struggles. Generally, we encourage young girls to cut ties with people who have treated them poorly, but we don’t talk enough about how to find people who might treat them with more respect. Instead, we lead them to believe that people are always going to be mean, it is up to them to call those people out and tell them they deserve differently. This is more likely to lead to feelings of anger and a desire for revenge than true equanimity.
The Kindness Experiment
Professor Binfet was one of several researchers who decided to disrupt the mean girl narrative by surveying students to determine the extent they see themselves as kind in online and face-to-face interactions. They then asked them to plan and complete five kind acts for one week and followed up with self-report questionnaires about their self-esteem.
“When encouraged to be kind, they surpassed expectations. It was interesting to see how adolescents support others with nuanced ways of helping that included helping generally, physically, emotionally, and with household chores,” says Binfet. “As educators and parents model kindness or provide examples of kindness, showcasing examples of subtle acts might make being kind easier for adolescents to accomplish.”
Following the one-week challenge, participants reported a significant increase in their self-ratings of face-to-face and online kindness. This study showed promising positive effects on school climate, student-to-student relationships, and student behavior.
Shifting the Anti-Bullying Narrative Towards Building Self-Esteem In Girls
“There’s been a shift in schools in recent years to move away from anti-bullying initiatives to efforts that embrace and promote pro-social behavior,” says Binfet. “There is an emphasis on kindness throughout school curriculum, but little is known about how youth actually enact kindness.”
At Asheville Academy for Girls, building a positive peer culture is one of our main goals. Many of our students have a history of bullying others or being bullied and have experienced relational trauma that makes it difficult for them to recognize their own strengths in relationships. We recognize that anti-bullying initiatives are just one part of how we can change their beliefs about relationships and their behavior in relationships.
We have witnessed how improving self-esteem has a significant impact on the way young girls interact with each other. When they feel confident about who they are, they are more assertive when they feel disrespected or rejected by peers and are better able to ask for what they need. When they feel proud of their skills in a certain subject, they are less likely to be affected by negative comments about their performance. When they trust that they have personal strengths, they are less likely to desperately seek other people’s approval. They learn that the people who recognize and appreciate their skills and their energy will gravitate towards them without them having to seek out negative attention.
Our therapeutic boarding school curriculum is designed to reflect students’ clinical goals of building confidence in and out of the classroom. Small class sizes, individualized instruction during study halls, and experiential learning strategies help students feel supported by both teachers and their classmates. With a small student to teacher ratio, students have the opportunity to be more vocal in classrooms and to have their voice heard, and to have their accomplishments praised.
For more information about how we help in building self esteem in girls, call 800-264-8709.
Cat brings more than thirty years of experience making an impact in the lives of adolescents. Cat has developed multiple programs helping children, teens, and young adults in a variety of settings and with a diverse range of diagnoses. She has dedicated her career to behavioral health and is honored to be part of the passionate team at Asheville Academy for Girls. She recognizes how delicate this age is and is proud of the role she and her team play in helping girls grow and prosper.