There is much to learn about the environment in which girls live. We have to be careful not to stereotype our daughter’s friendships or to put her into a certain category or box. The terrain can be rough for even the most popular girl, and understanding the landscape and how it affects your individual child is paramount. We can take nothing for granted when raising a teenage girl. Rejection and isolation are traumatic, and they can be destructive if you don’t intervene when your daughter is behaving like a bully or is being victimized. However, your first reaction must be to carefully listen to your daughter in order to understand her life.

In our focus groups, we have observed that girls experience social exclusion as devastating because they define themselves in relation to their peer group. Leslie, the mother of a 13-year-old, tells the following story: “My daughter, Sarah, was invited to a Friday night sleepover. She had swim practice early the next day, and she knew that it was important to get enough sleep. She is usually OK about coming home at a reasonable time, but this time she went ballistic. Sarah’s reaction didn’t match the content, and I knew something else was going on. Finally, she told me that a group of friends were spending the night and if she wasn’t there, she could be their next victim. Sarah actually said, ‘Mom, they’ll kill me off if I’m not there to protect myself.’

“I really didn’t know what to do. If she spent the night, practice would be rough, but she seemed so vulnerable that I didn’t want to put her ‘in harm’s way.’ I let Sarah make the choice. She decided to spend the night but wanted to be picked up early enough to go to swim practice. Sarah was so appreciative of me letting her make the decision. This incident gave us a good opportunity to talk about the meaning of friendship, while at the same time learning how to watch your back. I wouldn’t want to be 13 again!”

In one of our focus groups, another mother said, “The horrible treatment some girls inflict on others creates scars that can’t be seen.” This observation is supported by the recent literature. In Odd Girl Out, Rachel Simmons states that bullying among girls is epidemic. Rosalind Wiseman, in Queen Bees and Wannabes, argues that if a teenage girl is rejected by one of the popular girls, she may become a victim for good.

Many mothers told us stories about their daughters’ rejection by friends. One mother could hardly console her 16-year-old daughter, Maggie, after her friends accused her of liking someone else’s boyfriend. Girls tend even to fight cooperatively. The group’s wrath was fast and furious. In this age of instant messaging and e mail, the attacks against Maggie spread throughout her peer group in less time than it takes parents to make a phone call. Maggie’s social environment became so negative that she didn’t want to go to school.

young girls

Maggie’s pain was real. Without acceptance by her group, she felt a loss of her identity. Mistakes happen. Unfortunately, sometimes with groups of girls a mistake is viewed, as one 13-year-old girl described, “as if I killed somebody.” During these terrible events in their lives, girls need our perspective and patience. We must take their pain seriously. You can begin the process of healing by teaching your daughter the social skills necessary to defend herself when her peer group attacks her. We should expect our daughters to learn from their mistakes and, at the same time, let them know we will help them through that process. Parents can use these group attacks to teach their daughters not to engage in the same conduct. Your daughter has to depend upon you to be rational and to tell the truth. If she was wrong, tell her and help her to repair the damage. To be most helpful, it’s important that you understand the context your daughter is operating in and the tremendous pressure she may feel to conform to her peers’ expectations.

Another mother described how “Girls mentally break each other down. . . . Girls choose sides, which can ruin someone’s whole year; trust me, I know. They confess intimate feelings. They know each other’s weak spots and go for them when they get angry.” Jessica, a 17- year-old senior, recalled, “Middle school is all about ganging up, who can get more people to get their back. They mostly make fun of someone’s physical appearance or whatever they know about a friend’s insecurities.” When girls are on the receiving end of this behavior, for many “the threat of disruption of an affiliation is perceived not just as a loss of a relationship but as something closer to a total loss of self,” according to Jean Baker Miller’s Toward a New Psychology of Women. While teenage boys practice physical fighting to assert their individuality, girls practice fighting for a definition of self through social behavior.

Parents told us stories about their girls being harassed or socially ostracized from female peer groups because of a seemingly minor relationship infraction. Whatever the offense, the punishment always exceeds the crime. The response is so punitive to remind the “perpetrator” of the principal value of cooperation. The underlying assumption here is that an infraction against one is an infraction against the group. This type of harassment is multicultural; as Phyllis Chesler says, “Girls of all colors have their own ways of bullying and beating each other.” Many parents dismiss this behavior as “girls will be girls.” This is a major mistake. Give your daughter the clear message that harassing behavior is never appropriate.