Friday, May 28, 2010

Mean Girls and Bullies – What to Do? Questions Answered – 5/28/10

I have a serious situation to run by you guys. It's a little peripheral to direct parenting of my own
daughter, Stella, but it’s stuff that parents of teens, especially, are going to encounter.

Stella has a friend named Emma. She's a dear girl whose mother died in February of
2009. Since middle school, Emma has been kind of "smitten" (in a non-sexual way) with a girl
named Madison who runs with our crowd of super bright overachievers.

Madison is turning into the very definition of a Mean Girl without Queen Bee status. She loves
that Emma is smitten and desperate to remain friends, and she's using her to ... I don't know what.
Stoke the fires of her own ego? I just don't know. They’re all freshmen heading into
sophomores – Emma will be 15 next month. Natalie turned 15 in April. Stella is 15½; Madison
turns 16 in July. I've known Madison for a long time, but don't know her as well as Stella's other
friends like Emma, Natalie, and Zoe. Madison has always been kind of mean to Emma, jokingly threatens to stop being friends, tried to make her break up with a boy she liked BEFORE the eighth-grade dance, etc., etc.

Right after Emma’s mom died, Madison grew very close to Emma and was really supportive, and
I think Emma imprinted on her like a little duckling. The emotional abuse Stella has described
Madison perpetrating on Emma almost sounds like "hazing" to me. She orders Emma to wear
ridiculous combinations of clothes (ugly T-shirts with a belt around her waist and high heels with
capris or something dreadful like that). If Emma says she doesn't want to do whatever it is that
Madison has commanded, Madison threatens her with the withdrawal of her affection or tells her
she won't room with her during band camp in August.

Madison does the kind of thing that always made me feel stupid as a kid. "Gosh, Gracie! I was
only kidding. Can't you take a joke?"

Stella said people are starting to talk about Emma's odd behavior (her grades are also slipping.
She bombed a test Stella aced, totally unusual), but it's not the REAL Emma. It's what Madison is
turning her into, Stella says.

Stella, being Stella, is furious. But Emma begged Stella not to tell anyone (so of course she told
me since I'm no one). I think Stella has dropped hints to Natalie, too, partly because Natalie also
loves Emma and partly because Natalie can understand Madison's behavior from the inside out
since she has those spontaneous "mean girl" tendencies herself (though Natalie is self-aware
enough to know when she's been horrid and has the guts to apologize). Yesterday evening, Stella
said things between Madison and Emma seemed better, but when she first told me what was
going on yesterday afternoon, she was hell-bent on some kind of "intervention." Stella is going to
offer to room with Emma during band camp. She wants to get Emma over here more but with a
bunch of other people, NOT including Madison.

We worry that Emma, who has ALWAYS been fragile, even before her mama died, might begin
leaning toward self-harm of some kind. She used to even say she wanted to kill herself, that she
hates herself. Stella said she thinks that Emma really just hates the person Madison is turning her
into. I don't know about that. Emma can't see her own gifts, and even I've heard her mutter about
how much she hates herself. Madison seems to be playing on this self-loathing for reasons I
cannot understand.

If Emma were an adult, I know someone would say, "Well, she can just choose not to respond to
Madison." But she's NOT an adult. She's 14, motherless, ultra-sensitive. I know Emma won't talk
to her beautiful father about this. I don't know how, but Stella said the thing with Madison trying
to manipulate Emma's behavior is affecting her home life. Emma’s Dad NEEDS his daughter.
They are a tight unit.

My question, or one of them, is: when do I break Stella's trust and talk to Emma's dad or even
Madison's parents? I haven't seen any of the behavior myself. This is all just from my own child. I
told my kid that I will help her to help her friend in any way I can, that Emma can ALWAYS
come here, that she can go into The City shopping with us, spend the night any time she wants to
over the summer, anything, whatever. But I feel like someone needs to do more, and if that
someone is me, I need ideas on how to deal with this without upsetting too many people or my
own sensitive soul and dear God have you EVER READ SUCH A LONG LETTER?

I'm very shy about approaching people with uncomfortable issues. It kind of makes me sick to my
stomach. I can't even imagine trying to discuss this with Emma’s dad. Emma has an older brother
who is either about to graduate from college or already has graduated. I wonder if he would be a
better person for me to approach. Or her grandma. Or no one. Maybe Stella is right, and the
situation between Emma and Madison is easing, no more hazing or threats. Maybe I should sit
tight and observe for a specific amount of time.

I hate to break Stella's trust because I think it's so wonderful and important that she TALKS to
me. But she also knows that if I thought someone intended to harm herself or was causing
someone else terrible harm, I would have to say something to the right people. You know?

She told me for a reason. She needed me to know.

--Grace Under Fire

Millie Writes:

Dear Grace,

First of all, congratulations. You have raised your daughter so well that even though she is right in the middle of her teenage years, she doesn’t hesitate to come to you when she has a problem that’s too big for her to handle. This is a sign that Stella will grow to be as wise as her mama.

If school was still in session where you live, I’d suggest that you go talk to Emma’s counselor. As you say, you haven’t witnessed the behavior personally since most of it has taken place at school; Emma’s counselor would be able to unobtrusively keep an eye on the dynamic between Emma and Madison. However, that’s not the case right now.

There are two general parts to this question: first, how to handle things so you’re not jeopardizing Stella’s confidence in you and second, how to help Emma. There’s also the subject of what’s going on in Madison’s life that she thinks it’s okay to treat a friend in the way she’s treating Emma, but that’s probably a different column altogether.

You’re right when you say Stella told you for a reason. She needed you to know, and she knows that Moms help kids. If in the end you choose to do some semi-public intervention (with Emma’s Dad or a school counselor, for example), it’s important to talk to Stella about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. You can reassure her that you’ll keep her name out of it as much as possible, if you can. Tell her that while she promised Emma not to repeat what Emma told her, you’re glad that she did because there are some things that 14-year-olds shouldn’t have to handle by themselves. You can also let Stella know that if someone else’s mother had this information about Stella, you would want to be told so you could help her.

You’re right on to want to observe for yourself before you take any steps that are too drastic, so I suggest that you step up your and Stella’s involvement in Emma’s life. I know she has an outstanding invitation to spend the night, go shopping and hang out, but this summer try amping it up a little bit: instead of open invites, have Stella call Emma with specific plans. “Mom and I are going to see The A Team and we’ll pick you up in an hour!” You can also extend a few of these ideas to Emma through her dad, so that you can become more comfortable talking to one another in non-crisis situations—this will help if you do want to approach him later about the bullying.

Stella’s right on the money about wanting to have Emma over more often with a large group of friends. You might go a step further than this and have them take a “just for fun” class together over the summer. Nothing boosts a teen’s self-confidence like having an opportunity to display a little competence in some area, so sign them both up for jiu-jitsu, horseback riding or swim classes. Physical exertion is good for raising the feel-good hormones in her brain and it will give her the chance to forge some new friendships. The less Emma’s self-esteem hinges on what Madison thinks of her, the easier it will be for her to stand up to the bullying—and you’re absolutely right, a mid-teen cannot be expected to just shrug off this kind of behavior. They are more sensitive right now than at any other time in their lives.

It’s a great idea for Emma and Stella to room together at band camp – again, anything that takes the focus off of Emma and Madison being BFFs can only help Emma. If there will be a trusted faculty member at the camp and you feel comfortable talking to her, you might take her aside and give her a condensed version of what’s going on so that she can watch over any interactions between Emma and other kids.

As for your question, “When do I break Stella’s confidence and talk to her Dad or other family member?” I think the answer is: You do it when you’ve heard or observed something about Emma that sets off alarm bells about her safety or sanity. It’s not that you shouldn’t trust Stella’s interpretation of events, but if you’re calling Emma’s dad or her grandma you must be able to give them specifics. When in doubt, ask yourself: If this was happening to Stella, would I want to know about it? Or would I chalk it up to “kids will be kids?”

Finally, keep calm in front of Stella. She’s watching you closely to see how you handle the information she’s given you. If she feels you’re going to bulldoze through the problem and (in her eyes) embarrass you, she will think twice about confiding I you in the future; if you are frank yet reassuring in your discussions with Stella and don’t act drastically differently when you’re around Emma or Madison, she’ll relax. It’s quite possible that she’s right and the worst of the problem has passed. Just extend Emma a little more hospitality than usual this summer, keep an eye on Madison when she’s around, and most importantly: Trust your instincts.

Mollie Writes -

How to deal with mean girls?

I'm right on board with Millie.  I'll just add my two cents worth (or $.40 by today's exchange).

First, I'd talk to Stella in the same fashion Millie said.  Let her know that Stella was right to come to you, and that you want her to continue to trust you with her confidences.  But also let her know that you love Emma, and want to be sure that she stays safe during these awkward years.  Not having her own mother to confide in must be horrible for Emma and I'm sure Stella will empathize.

Do you ever see Emma's dad?  The next time you do, just let him know how much you love Emma and that if she has any 'girlie' issues, you are available for tea and sympathy.  You don't have to bring up specific issues, just let it dangle.  Emma may have other things to talk to someone about, and this might open her up with you.

Keep Emma busy with your family this summer.  With school being out, there isn't much a counselor can do once they are on hiatus.  When Emma is with your family, be open to her discussion of her relationships with her other friends.  Don't introduce the subject, but if she offers something, let her talk.    Try to have contact with Emma at least two times each week, and reassure Emma that if she wants some chat time with a surrogate mother, you are there.

Have Stella and Emma room together at camp.  Madison needs to see that she is not in control of Emma's life.

When school is ready to start in the fall, talk to Stella and let her know that a good idea would be to bring in a school counselor at the beginning of the school year.  I'm thinking that Emma needs a touchstone (female, to replace her mom) in her life.  You can be one, but also a female school counselor would be a good team member.  A school counselor is a daily contact who can keep an eye on relationships, etc. and let Emma know that she is an important member of the school community.  School counselors have resources we don't have, and also know other teachers in the community who will keep a loving eye on Emma.

Try to help Stella see that Emma is facing some issues that the rest of us can't imagine.  Reassure her that her instincts were right - that bringing in adults to help was a good action.

At some point, we need to think about Madison as well.  It could be with a small change in the power structure of their group, things will settle down.  But obviously Madison is expressing an emotional deficit.  Is this something that should be addressed?  Keep in touch and let us know.


  1. Thank you, lovely Millie and lovely Mollie. I'm so grateful that you put so much thought and love into this.

    I'll come back with an update in a few weeks (if the crazy summer doesn't kill me - hee).


  2. What a sad situation. Emma is definitely surrounded by those who love her--I hope she's able to see that.


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