The Emotional Lives of Teenagers

Publishing February 2023

The Emotional Lives of Teenagers is written as clearly, usefully, and warmly as anything I’ve read about the psychology of adolescence. Lisa Damour explains why intense feelings—including negative ones—are a key part of teenage development, and how we can help young people understand, and most importantly, embrace the full spectrum of human emotion. I give it my highest recommendation!”

– Angela Duckworth, author of Grit and Co-Founder of Character Lab

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The Emotional Lives of Teenagers

The Emotional Lives of Teenagers

Lisa's latest book is an urgently needed guide to help parents understand their teenagers’ intense and often fraught emotional lives—and how to support them through this critical developmental stage.

Under Pressure

Under Pressure

Lisa’s second New York Times best seller is a celebrated, urgently needed guide to addressing the alarming increase in anxiety and stress in girls from elementary school through college.

Untangled

Untangled

Lisa’s award-winning New York Times best seller–now available in nineteen languages–is a sane, informed, and engaging guide for parents of teenage girls.

Episode 59

My Daughter Is the Mean Girl. What Do I Do?

What if your child is the one who is hurting other kids feelings at school? A concerned mom discovers that her daughter, who has been struggling socially, is pushing peers away by being too critical. She turns to Dr. Lisa for advice on how to get her middle school daughter to become more self-aware and tolerant.

December 7, 2021 | 27 min

Transcript | My Daughter Is the Mean Girl. What Do I Do?

Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 59: My Daughter is the Mean Girl. What Do I Do?

 

The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional

mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being,

consult a physician or mental health professional.

 

REENA: So, how’s school going?

 

LISA: You know it’s good. It’s good. Both of my daughters have settled into their rhythms, which I realize takes a really long time into the school year. How about on your end?

 

REENA: You know, you always say that it takes a moment. Like we assume within a week or two were set, but you always say this, that it takes some time. Why is that?

 

LISA: Yeah I think that, especially right after such a disruptive period, finding their friends, finding who they want to be with, figuring out how to divide up that time. I think they have to sort it out, and I think they’re getting there. I think they’ve sort of gotten there, but it’s been a tough comeback, Reena, I think for everybody.

 

REENA: Tell me about it. It’s still ongoing, it feels. You know, something you said really stood out to me a couple weeks ago when you were saying developmentally a lot of kids have been out of school, so you’re learning social skills and things from possibly eighteen months to two years ago, and one of those is we talk about sort of the mean girls in class sometimes, right? We got this letter that I thought was really great, Lisa. It says: ‘Dear, Lisa, I’ve recently been introduced to your podcasts from a friend and I am literally binging listening to all of them. My oldest daughter is in the eighth grade at a relatively small parochial school. My daughter is extremely bright, and does excellent academically. She’s confident and comfortable in her own skin. Or so it appears to be. At the end of the last school year and the beginning of this year, she’s really been struggling socially. After talking to her and listening to what she tells me about her day, it’s become increasingly obvious to me that she may be the one turning her friends away. She’s very critical of the other girls if they behave in a way that she doesn’t approve of, the loud silly attention-seeking behavior, which is normal for girls this age, is a huge turn off to her. She makes comments to these girls and tries to control the situation often. Little jabss here and there about someone’s shorts being too short or how ridiculous she thinks it is that a girl’s parent brought her lunch to school or just simply how annoying she finds someone. I am desperate to show my daughter that her behavior is hurtful and unkind and how this affects her friends thinking of her. Can you please help me figure out how to help her? How to teach her acceptance and to change your inner dialogue so that she isn’t thinking these critical, unkind thoughts?’ Wow. I mean first off, what’s going on here?

 

LISA: Whoo. A lot. A lot is going on. I’m so glad to unpack all of this. Before we get into what’s happening with this child, and how to help, I just want say, Reena, kudos to this parent for recognizing that their kid may be the one hurting other kids’ feelings, and I just think that is such an extraordinary thing to be able to do as a parent, and it’s extraordinary, first of all, because we, by our nature, you knows we protect our kids, we’re inclined to feel like someone’s hurting our kid as opposed to the possibility of our kid’s hurting somebody else, and also because it’s really, really painful, as a parent, to come to terms with the fact that your kid might be being unkind, and it’s a really hard moment as a parent to think, oh no, like my kid may be the one making this bad, and so I’m just so awed by this mom who sent this, and I just want to say that right away.

 

REENA: It’s huge. You’re right. So often I feel like parents are whispering, oh my god that kid again, that kid again, and sometimes the parents might not even be self aware that it’s their kid, so that’s a big moment.

 

LISA: It’s a big deal.

 

REENA: Where do you think this mom should start?

 

LISA: Well, there’s so many great inroads here. So, the first thing I think I want to say, as we think it through, is late seventh, early eighth grade we really may be talking about a 12-year-old, and I think it’s important to remember that number because we get, you know, seventh grade, you know, we just imagine these monsters. Eighth grade we imagine imagine bigger monsters, we imagine kids can be so apparently sophisticated in their social aggression and what we want to ground ourselves as a reality is these are still kids, and this letter writer points out how, you know, bright and sophisticated in her thinking this child is, and I believe that to be true. We still have to remember, this is actually something that comes up a lot on this podcast which I think is I’m fascinated by the themes that recur.

 

REENA: Yeah.

 

LISA: They can still be really concrete. They can still not be thinking about what does it feel like to be on the receiving end of that kind of commentary. You know that they can still be very much grounded in their own position and not yet able to step back and imagine the impact, or even, and this is a big achievement, developmentally, do a thought experiment. What I mean by that is to think, if I say this, how might it go? You know to even insert that space of thinking it through before it comes out of their mouth. So, it is really possible that you have a super good kid who has a really good heart whose mouth gets out ahead of them and is not thinking about what that’s going to feel like for a kid on the receiving end. It doesn’t mean this is a mean kid, and one of the things I want to pause on for a moment is the term mean girl, and, Reena, you know this is in the culture, right? Like this is a term that gets thrown around, and have you heard other parents talk about that kid’s a mean girl, that kid’s a mean girl, have you heard it said in your world?

 

REENA: Oh, yeah. All the time.

 

LISA: Yeah, and it’s, I want to hesitate on this term, and I don’t fault the letter writer for using it because it’s so much in the vernacular, but I’ve got to tell you, Reena, it’s actually not my favorite. It’s like really not my favorite term.

 

REENA: Why? Why do you hate it so much?

 

LISA: Well, the first problem is we don’t have a male equivalent.

 

REENA: True.

 

LISA: We don’t talk about, oh, he’s a mean boy, and that to me always gets my attention, right? When I’m like, wait a minute. How come girls can get this tattooed on their forehead but boys can’t? Right? Like that very concerning to me, and then the other thing is a bit the tattoo quality of it. That, you know, certainly kids, and this kid, you know, may be going through a period where they’re using and abusing social power in ways that are hurtful, and it’s not okay, and it’s very common, unfortunately, in seventh and eighth grade, and it’s not at all uncommon for kids to outgrow it. That as soon as they start to get some perspective taking and are better able to do thought experiments, they’re like, whoa, whoa, whoa, that’s probably not okay what I was doing, and it’s not unusual at all for a kid who was pretty tricky in the seventh or eighth grade to pull it together and actually often become quite a positive leader later in development. Like they’ve got leadership skills. They just have to use them for good.

 

REENA: Really? Wow.

 

LISA: So, I always feel hesitant, given how stuck a kid can get with this label, I feel hesitant to use it because development is long and we’re talking about young kids, and so this is not nearly as elegant as ‘mean girl’, but I think in my world let’s say this is a kid who right now is struggling with how to navigate social power questions and how to use it.

 

REENA: Yeah. And so, she’s struggling socially still. How do you turn this around?

 

LISA: Well, such an insightful letter because what this parent acknowledges is, I think my kid is saying, you know, kind of curt things, or corrective things, bossy things to other kids, you know, she doesn’t have much patience for them, and so she does need to turn it around, and I’ll tell you why, Reena. Kids will tolerate this kind of through seventh and part of the eighth grade. If you’re still doing this late eighth grease where  you’re really being hard on your classmates in ways that are not empathic or sensitive, they get pretty tired of it, and if you’re still doing it and early ninth grade, you increasingly do get, I would say in some ways like rusticated, like pushed to the side, like kids will really not tolerate it anymore, and it’s pretty painful to watch a young person who come tenth grade realizes all of their errors but has at that point basically burned a lot of their bridges. So, we want her to turn it around this year. So, as a first pass, of course, we’d want this parent to try to inspire some empathy, you know, so the kid comes home and reports, like, oh my god someone was warning really dumb shorts and I told them how dumg shorts were, and that might be a moment where the parent says, look I get it, but like I wonder how that felt for her? Like how do you think that landed? Did you notice a look on our face that changed?

 

REENA: That’s so interesting. So having that conversation could really get them to see another perspective that eventually, hopefully, will sink in?

 

LISA: Yeah. Now, of course, the chances that the kids can say, oh, wow I wasn’t thinking about that. You’re right. Her face fell. You know those are vanishingly low. I think there’s a very good chance the kid will roll their eyes and walk away. This is not a lost cause, right? This was not a wasted comment. You’re getting her thinking. Like that’s the goal is you’re getting her thinking. So, I don’t want any parent to feel like these empathy object lessons are only successful if the kid thinks it through in front of you, feels repentant and then promises to never do it again and apologize. I mean there’s a lot of, you know, I wonder how that felt for that kid. Or like I don’t know what the shorts looked like but like you don’t want to be saying anything that’s going to ruin anybody else’s day. You know those kinds of comments that don’t really require a response can be a way to push them forward developmentally. That’s how we want to think about it. Not, you know, cleanse their evil souls, but it’s actually pushing them forward developmentally out of this very, very egocentric position, a very concrete position that comes at younger ages, into a more perspective-taking, slowing down, thinking about how this is going to feel position.

 

REENA: Ao take me back for second into the brain of this eighth grader. What’s happening here? Is she herself feeling insecure that she’s got to take down these other girls? Like why did these, over the course of you practicing and treating and talking to these adolescents, what causes them to be the mean girl?

 

LISA: You know you wonder, right? You wonder, and I think you’re onto something very much with the sense of like why does she have to take other kids down a few pegs? Right? And is she feeling small herself, and is she managing that by making other kids feel small instead? You know you do really wonder about that, and I think that could be at work, and I think if the parent thought that was at work, they might say something to their kid, like, you know you’re such a good kid with so many strengths. You don’t need to do this. You don’t need to point out other people’s flaws. You are amazing, and they are also amazing, and if a parent really wanted to put a fine point on it, and I would just say this has to go totally under the parent’s advisement of who their kid is and how this would land, the parent might even say, it’s kind of beneath you. You know, you’re a really good kid. It’s kind of beneath you to be criticizing other kids, but that would be, for me, the outer limit of commentary in that direction. The other thing that happens, Reena, and it’s extraordinary, is sometimes around sixth grade, and this is often I think where a lot of what we will call for the sake of argument here mean girl or mean boy, behavior starts is a kid tosses off a cruel comment and notices that suddenly people are more cautious around them, more deferential to them, less likely to push back on them because other kids are now a little little bit scared of them. So, they toss off a cruel comment and they’re like, check it out. I just gained a ton of power, and then they do it again, and then they get more power and they’re like, this is amazing, like all I have to do is give that kid a nasty nickname or point out how frizzy their hair looks and suddenly people want to be my friend because they don’t want to be on the receiving end of this, and so you just picture, and it’s so, it’s such a bad mismatch developmentally, and this is why seventh grade really is the inner circle of this particular kind of social hell, because kids have figured out, like if I’m nasty I actually gain power and they are not yet developmentally able to always think, now should I be nasty, right? They just go ahead and do it. So, sometimes it just takes on a life of its own that needs to then be really addressed from the standpoint of, you are better than this. You are not to mistreat others. I wonder how it felt for that kid when you said that.

 

REENA: So, I mean it’s still a delicate age. How does this mom approach this without completely hurting the girl’s feelings or crushing her, right? Because self confidence is hard to come by at that age?

 

LISA: It is. It is, and so you think if my kid is already saying this to kids because they feel small, me coming down on them like a ton of bricks for being mean is not actually going to help the situation. So, there’s something in this letter I want to go back to around the parent’s wish for the child to not have the critical thoughts, and I think that is setting the bar too high.

 

REENA: What do you mean?

 

LISA: I mean like, we’re all going to have critical thoughts, and kids are going to have critical thoughts, and I think the way there may be an opening to both improve the child’s behavior but not hurt her is to work in that space of what we think versus what we say. What our inner world of impressions and feelings and thoughts is versus how we conduct ourselves outwardly. And this is a particular axle I watch girls get wrapped around, and what I mean is I don’t know what people mean when they say this, but there’s often a lot of emphasis for girls on this idea of being authentic, right? You hear this. Like nobody’s talking about like, the boys need to be authentic, right? But there is heavy pressure, like girls need to be authentic.

 

REENA: True.

 

LISA: It’s so weird. Well, it’s not weird. I just don’t know what people mean when they say it, but I’ll tell you what girls hear. They hear transparent. Like if I think it, if I’m authentic, I will say it.

 

REENA: Oh, so like you have no filter. You just say what’s on your mind, that’s authentic in their minds.

 

LISA: That’s authentic, and this has been held out is like some achievement for, you know, female self realization. So, part of what we want to give this kid the benefit of the doubt of, is she’s like, I’m just telling them what I think, right? I had the thought. I’m not going to be two-faced about it, which is sometimes how girls will talk if they think one thing and then they’re polite outwardly, they’re being two-faced or somehow fake. I’m just going to tell her what I think of her shorts, right? So, this is a really big fat wonderful opening for the parent to be like, let’s talk about when you’re thinking something that is maybe not something worth saying, and the beautiful thing, Reena, you know this, grownups, we have these thoughts all the time.

 

REENA: Yeah. Totally. Totally right.

 

LISA: We have these thoughts all the time, and so it may be a place for them on the start, which is to say like, look, I have a colleague who wears like the ugliest ugly Christmas sweater but all year long, and I see this colleague and I’m like, holy moly what are you wearing? Or whatever, and for the parent to say, I don’t say, and it’s not that I’m being, and it’s really interesting with seventh and eighth grade kids, especially, you really have to highlight this. I’m not being two-faced to hold it back. I’m not being fake to hold it back. Like somehow that has become this weird standard that middle schoolers and early high schoolers hold. So, a way that works is to talk with kids about the front stage and the backstage, and the backstage is what we’re thinking that is our own private universe, and the front stage is what we show everybody else, and every functioning adult has both, and you know this, right? I mean you must have in your work interviewed, dealt with people, where you were having two completely different experiences internally.

 

REENA: Yeah, but that’s interesting. I never thought of it as the front stage and backstage. Tell me more about that. What do you mean?

 

LISA: Well, I like this way of thinking because it gives kids an alternative to the, I must be transparent. I must share everything. Otherwise I am being manipulative or duplicitous. I mean kids really think this. To really say, there’s a whole universe of thoughts and feelings that you will have that are yours. They belong to you. They stay on your backstage. What’s important though is to remember not all of that comes to the front stage. Frontstage is how you treat people. Frontstage is what people get to see. You, kiddo, are in charge of what people get to see, and so you may not like a girl’s shorts, and you’re free to think that. I want you to be really careful about what you say outwardly because you are a kind kid and you don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. So, you’re allowed to have those thoughts and feelings, but if they’re not that nice, they should probably stay on your backstage.

 

REENA: That’s interesting. So, going back to this eighth grader, Lisa, do you think she can still turn this around?

 

LISA: I do. I do, but I think she’s going to have to be careful because the other thing that we see is that she could pull it together for a while, but then if she says something harsh or unkind, kids are going to be cautious around her again. You know, I mean I think that there may be some injuries that kids are nursing, and so if she can be gentle, I’m amazed by how forgiving kids can be, and so I think that is very much to her benefit, but I’m rooting for her development, I’m rooting for her perspective-taking, and I’m also rooting for the idea it’s not that we entirely divorce our front and backstage backstages. We use our backstage to inform what we want to do on the front stage, inform how we want to treat people, inform who we want to spend more time with and who we want to avoid, and I think that’s the kind of conversation this could turn into between this parent and child, and I do. I see all the time kids to turn it around and get on the right track, and what I love about this letter is this is a girl who’s coming home and talking to her mom about what’s hard, and if the conversations were going well, I do think in the gentlest way, the parent might be able to say, you know, I can’t really know what’s happening. I’m not there at school, but you’re feeling like you don’t have as many people reaching out as you have wanted in the past, and I do wonder if people are a little anxious in your company if they know you’re willing to see things that might be hurtful, and just to leave it at that, but to try to help the girl connect the dots between people pulling away and the fact that she will say things that are not nice.

 

REENA: That’s interesting. So, the fact that this mom has this opening by talking to her and that’s how she found out that she’s the mean girl, using that avenue to maybe possibly get through her?

 

LISA: Yeah, and doing it in the sweetest way, you know, and I think the key in this is to not expect a response. You know just to say it, to let it be, to let the kid walk away if they need to. They do start to connect the dots. They do grow and develop, and what I would say is any one conversation is a nudge in the development of better perspective-taking, better filtration of what comes out of one’s mouth, better understanding that you don’t actually have to share everything you’re thinking, that doesn’t make you fake. There’s no one conversation that clarifies all of this for a kid. It’s a lot of conversations with a lot of nudging and a lot of very high expectations around how they’ll conduct themselves and show the world that they’re the good kid you know them to be.

 

REENA: Before we go I want to ask you about the leadership point because you were saying that being the mean girl can sometimes be turned the other way for the good leadership qualities. So often when I hear about the mean girl, this concept, we think about people at work who are in leadership positions but lacks self-awareness and they’re the mean boss or the, you know, un-empathetic person. How do you turn that around into leadership skills?

 

LISA: It’s a great question, right? It’s a great question. So, what we see in kids who hold a lot of social power in not the best ways in middle school is that they often have quick processing, right? That they can quickly think of a funny thing to say even if it’s only funny to them, they are often extroverted, right? Those are the kids who have those skills. So, quick processing and extroversion, for better or for worse, often do lend themselves to good leadership, right?

That you can be out there in front, talking and having good ideas fast. We just need to strip away the mean aspect of it for it to be the kind of leadership we really want to see, and so that’s what I would really talk up with this kid, which is say, look you think fast, you have, you know, lots of ideas, you’re willing to share them, these are all to the good, your job now is to decide which of these really deserve to be shared, which of these are going to make the situation around you better, which of these are going to make people feel at ease and enjoy your company.

 

REENA: That’s good. You’ve made me look at this whole mean girls concept in a totally different light. I have to say.

 

LISA: Good.

 

REENA: So, what do you have for us for parenting to go?

 

LISA: So, one of the things that I came across when I was researching “Untangled” was incredibly fascinating research on popularity in middle school, and these brilliant researchers went and asked kids to talk about what they meant when they said somebody was popular, and two very distinct categories emerged. There were kids who were highly likable, widely liked by a lot of kids in the class and there were kids who were mean and everybody knew it, and they were both under the popular banner, and it goes back to what I was saying that sometimes when kids get mean, suddenly people become frightened of them and want to be their friends so as not to be on the receiving end of that behavior. That it can be very, very helpful to recognize that these two very different categories get lumped together, and so when your kid comes home and talks about, oh so and so’s popular, you know, and that comes into the conversation usually right around sixth or seventh grade, it can be very, very helpful to say to them, are they popular like everyone likes them? Or popular like kids are nervous in their company, and that distinction is very eye-opening for kids gives them a lot of relief because they’re like, that’s right. They’re in the second category of popular, which means I’m going to largely avoid them until they pull themselves together later in eighth grade, and it also helps highlight for kids how they themselves want to be.

 

REENA: That is so interesting, Lisa. Thank you for breaking this all down.

 

LISA: Happy to. Happy to.

 

REENA: And on our episode next week, we’re going tobe talking about divorce and what makes for a good divorce. Is it really such a thing?

 

LISA: There is such a thing, Reena, and we’ll talk about it next week. See you next week?

 

REENA: See you next week.

 

 

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