The queens of mean: The long-lasting effects of girl bullying

by North & South / 19 December, 2016

An essay, from a mother, on the exquisite powers of girl bullying.

There are some feelings that never quite retreat to their dark places once your teenage daughter has been expertly dismantled. Even when the mean girls responsible are long gone.
Every life hiccup still evokes an oh-God-here-we-go-again sense of dread – it’s only a matter of time before another expertly aimed barb wounds her. And you.

You’re also left with a sense something inside you has been dimmed – perhaps it’s the belief that, deep down, people are innately fair and kind.  

Not to mention anger. Stubborn, irrational anger jumbled with sleepless night fantasies of what you would say or do to each mean girl should you encounter her alone. I won’t elaborate for fear of being locked up, but that’s what the pain of watching your girl being psychologically f***ed over does to you.

Whoever said you are only as happy as your most miserable child got it right – they just understated it.

I thought I was ready for the mean-girl years. I’d read psychologist Nigel Latta’s explanation of the baffling, sometimes brutal world they inhabit: “Black Holes and the bitchy physics of the Girl-niverse: two of life’s great mysteries.”

But when my daughter Anna (not her real name) hit high school, what she faced seemed off the Girl-niverse scale. This was a finely tuned campaign of whispers, slagging-off and that most powerful of weapons, exclusion. It was so orchestrated, clever, sustained and exquisite in its execution that even with Latta’s words ringing in my ears, I never saw it coming.

The queens of mean, you see, were not the biff-in-the-toilets bullies or even the overtly bitchy girls – rather bright and hard-working students with wide, white smiles and an extraordinary ability to appear one way and behave another. These were good girls, princesses who won prizes for academic achievements and school spirit. It was agonising to watch accolades being bestowed when you knew what was going on behind the scenes. But at least I did know, and was grateful for that. Anna didn’t have to travel this road entirely alone.

It just takes one queen-pin, a couple of deputies and a bunch of girls who are too ambivalent or scared to say, “That’s just mean".

The mean-girl years tested me in ways I never thought possible. I knew about grief, but this was something else entirely. They were long and lonely and at times they turned me into someone I barely knew. And try as I might, I couldn’t stop it; I couldn’t keep my girl safe and happy. What sort of a mother was I?

And how in God’s name do a few hormone-addled teenage girls get to wield that sort of power? Turns out it’s quite easy. It just takes one queen-pin, a couple of deputies and a bunch of girls who are too ambivalent or scared to say, “That’s just mean.” I can’t really blame them. If it wasn’t Anna, it could be them and no one in their right mind would want that. Or perhaps they just enjoyed the feeling of a foot on the throat. I’ve learned that some people do.

In the end, one of the girls broke ranks and made a stand. I understand that some of this kid’s childhood friendships have been damaged as a result, one or two irrevocably, but she could no longer watch the exquisite dance of exclusion and said so. She was supported by her parents, who were unequivocal in their summation of the situation. It was bullying, they said, plain and simple. I remember dissolving into a blubbering snotty mess, grateful that other parents had finally got it. To Ms Brave, a girl with a moral compass and a titanium backbone – and her mum and dad – you know who you are, thank you.

The first dirty volley of the mean-girl years – all five of them – hit its target in Year 9. Anna confided concerns about a friend. I told her to keep an eye on her mate and if the problem persisted I’d talk to her mother. She told a mutual close friend who, much to her horror, passed it back to the girl in question (TGIQ). Suddenly Anna stood accused of passing on malicious gossip.

I don’t for a minute think this was the trigger for what was to follow – TGIQ was always going to find an incendiary in the dangerous world of girl talk – but this landed in her lap and, almost overnight, Anna’s world became a small and dark place. Girls were instructed not to talk to her, labels were attached, invitations to our house were turned down. Her cards were marked.

I couldn’t fathom what was going on and, fuelled by denial and a naive optimism that trouble would surely pass, encouraged Anna to keep asking kids over. Over time, the rejections became less and less guarded and more and more brutal – “No, I’m asking over Sophie, Hannah and Katie [but not you]” – and every rebuff further depleted her confidence reserves.

By the middle of Year 10, she wasn’t ringing anyone any more and apart from her sport, spent entire weekends without outside contact. I still believed, hoped, that the tide would turn but it was becoming increasingly clear that something was up.

The firm evidence was delivered during a sports game in which TGIQ and a couple of her deputies were in Anna’s team. I remember watching the girls prepare for their match and everyone being huddled in a circle except for Anna, who was on the outside. No one tried to include her, including the manager, a parent who seemed happy to play her role in behind-the-scenes vileness.

Any doubts I had about what was going on – and I did doubt, because you try desperately to hold on to perspective amid the pain – evaporated. It was there for all to see, and I felt sick. But what to do?

By now, I would have done almost anything to stop the rot but had to keep telling myself I was the adult and couldn’t resort to tit-for-tat, nasty behaviour, even though I truly wanted to. Fierce-mother me understood perfectly why parents sometimes step over the line to protect their kids or exact revenge. Luckily, sensible mother me won out and I spent a teary, quivering, messed-up hour with the school counsellor, who said I owed it to my daughter, and any other girls in the same boat, to take it to the school hierarchy, even if the powers-that-be didn’t believe me. They didn’t. Anna, I was told, had removed herself from the group and was somewhat standoffish, but there was no issue of bullying.

The torment of silence, whispers and exclusion continued. And just when things would start to settle down, TGIQ or one of her sidekicks would organise a get-together or outing where everyone in the group would be invited, except of course, Anna. That was the genius of this campaign of quiet tyranny – you could keep her on the miserable fringes by letting her believe that the worst had passed, then inflict a fresh wound.

Why did Anna stick around? I regularly broached the subject of trying to hang out with a different group, pleaded with her to change schools, but she wouldn’t have a bar of it. I think she believed this was just how life was, and the thought of going through it all over again with a bunch of strangers was too much to bear. She refused, point blank, to see a counsellor.

In her final year, Anna revealed she thought she’d been depressed in those lonely first two years at college and she didn’t want to return to that colour leached place. She was ready to talk to someone. It only took two or three sessions with a psychologist, who knew all about the minefield she’d been tiptoeing through, to put much of what had happened into some kind of perspective. No, she wasn’t an angel, but she didn’t deserve to be the whipping girl for a teenager who fed her own self-esteem with the dwindling remains of another’s.

There was another breakthrough when Anna started hanging out with a new-ish group of girls who didn’t have the same perfectly polished veneers, but turned out to have something altogether more precious – the courage to ignore the rules and take her as they found her.

One later revealed to Anna that she’d been warned off her and had been waiting for the “drama” now inextricably linked to her character to materialise. It never did.

What part did parents play in all of this? At best it was ignorance, although I’m not sure how you overlook some of the glaring signals that one kid was being ostracised. I remember a mother asking me how Anna was getting on at school and for once I confessed how miserable she was. Her reaction was bizarre: “If my daughter is one of those responsible, I apologise,” she said. It was clearly intentioned as a full stop to the conversation. She didn’t want to know.

One or two, I suspect, were participants. How else can you explain taking every team member from a particular year to watch the finals of a tournament, except one? After my daughter played her last game for her school, she spent the car trip home sobbing. By now, I had no words of comfort left.

I’ll never know what motivated TGIQ, but it turns out she is not a well young woman. It doesn’t excuse what she did, but does illustrate the fact that sometimes troubled human beings, when they have power, can be horribly destructive. I am still amazed by the longevity of her campaign – it must have been all-consuming and exhausting, but she was diligent in her pursuit of pain. 

Anna’s at university now and occasionally bumps into some of the girls with the wide white smiles and small dark hearts, but she doesn’t have much to do with them. These young women are part of a Girl-niverse she no longer has to inhabit. Her new world is a brighter, happier place.

One boy from school recently commented that Anna seemed so much more chilled these days. That happens when you no longer have to watch every word you say and no longer fear being the sole kid singled out for humiliation. Uni, with all its challenges, hiccups and usual girl-bullshit, is a walk in the park compared to where she’s come from – and she can’t quite believe that “friendship” doesn’t involve a programme of pain and humiliation.

Looking back, I think four things saved Anna, and one of them might surprise. Social media, so often a villain in the piece, gave her a place to be during her exile in teenage Coventry. I saw her blogging as a negative – days spent in front of a screen when she should be out and about – but I didn’t really appreciate that cyberspace was simply a place to be. 

Instead of joining a team where TGIQ and her deputies were members, I took her across town to another club. Two or three times a week she got to interact with girls who weren’t subject to TGIQ’s dictates and were unaware of the mud and labels. She loved her time with these kids and described her trip away at nationals with them as the best of her life. It was another strong piece of evidence that what was happening at school was way out of control.

Not many mothers of teenage girls can say this, but thank God for boys. Most don’t subscribe to the rules of the mean-girl handbook or get caught up in the politics, and a group of boys remained friends with Anna right though high school and beyond. There’s a lot to be said for co-ed schools.

The final factor was a trip back to the school office. I wasn’t going to be fobbed off again and let it be known we were dealing with a kid who was not coping. I let Anna do the talking and two deputy principals, brows furrowed and hands clasped, listened and agreed that what was happening to her was not acceptable. They would not call out TGIQ – that could make things worse for Anna – but from the next year they would never be in the same class. I have a strong recollection of driving away from school that day with an overwhelming sense of relief: someone, other than me, had believed her.

That’s not to say that the campaign of cruelty abated. In her final years of school, it just got more sophisticated. If you didn’t know it was happening, you’d never spot it. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for Anna in her toxic, almost invisible, bubble. What I could clearly see was an embattled kid whose defences became so eroded that often she was only a look or single word away from a meltdown. It was manna from heaven for the girls writing the drama queen script. I wonder if they ever think about the cruelty they knowingly inflicted.

Some good stuff has also come out of all of this. Anna’s not perfect – far from it – but she won’t abide people being ostracised and she won’t ever allow herself to be treated the same way again. In many ways, it has shaped the human being she is and I’m so proud.

For me, it reinforced the notion that kindness is essential but underrated. And, perhaps, that schools need to care less about kids with plastic smiles who know how to play the game and more about helping turn out caring young people. On second thoughts, that’s too much to ask of a school in a political environment that values the self above all.

If I wasn’t already a helicopter parent before all this started, I certainly was by the end – needs must – and I suspect both of us remain on some sort of subconscious high alert. It’s not easy to wash away the residue of such a successful campaign of pain. Still, there is life – a pretty happy life, as it turns out – after the Girl-niverse. You just have to survive it.  

*Names have been changed to protect victim, parents and perpetrators.

This article first appeared in the December 2016 issue of North & South.

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