Haley Kilpatrick was the new girl in middle school and an easy target for mean girls. She ate lunch alone in the girls’ bathroom to avoid being ostracized in the cafeteria. Things got better when an older girl in high school took her under her wing. Kilpatrick decided at age 15 to start Girl Talk, a program where high school girls mentor middle school girls. Today, the non-profit organization has more than 40,000 participants each year in 43 states and six countries, with a mission to help middle school girls build self-esteem and develop leadership skills.
In The Drama Years, you write that middle school is the great challenge for girls. Do girls struggle in high school?
Haley Kilpatrick: In middle school, you typically have two or three elementary schools merging together and groups of friends colliding all at once. Girls are trying to find their place and tend to try on new personas, and sometimes they wear a different one each week: artsy girl, sporty girl, mean girl, flirty girl, and so on. It’s confusing for girls to see a lifelong friend from elementary school morph before their eyes. The other aspect happening in middle school is that girls are in limbo a bit between being a child and becoming a young adult. One minute they might still want to climb trees, and the next they are in front of the mirror with the mascara wand and lip gloss. Some girls do continue to struggle in high school to find their footing, but in middle school, almost every girl is struggling.
How can parents help middle school girls avoid cyber-bullying, mean girls and frenemies?
Kilpatrick: Even though it’s tough to experience cyber-bullying, mean girls and frenemies — each of these experiences is an opportunity to position girls to have stronger female friendships for the rest of their lives. It’s truly up to parents to help girls recognize right and wrong behavior because the middle school years are where girls can really learn what it means to have and be a good friend. Some of the advice from high school girls in The Drama Years includes not “jumping into being BFFs” or “sharing all your secrets” with a friend a girl hasn’t known very long. Parents can help girls define true friendship around the qualities of kindness, authenticity and humility.
Begin an anchor activity outside of school. Pursue a sport, the arts, or a job like pet sitting or babysitting to gain freedom from the social pressure of school peers.
Lend a helping hand. Volunteer and experience being part of something bigger than yourself and see how you can make an impact, while gaining emotional maturity.
Find an adoptive older sister. Talk to someone a few years older who has been through middle school and can relate to social media issues. Older girls are eager to help younger girls navigate the turbulence of middle school.
Another way that parents can help girls is by being present and offering a listening ear without immediately jumping in with a quick fix or advice. Sometimes girls need to release some frustration from their day and to simply be heard.
Doesn’t every generation go through its share of girl drama and growing pains?
Kilpatrick: Young teen girl drama has been around for most of the modern era, but today’s young teens experience a very different type of drama than their parents. The current generation of middle school girls is the first to experience social media, and their parents are the first generation to parent through it. Unlike fevers and teething, parents can’t consult the sage advice of previous generations and today’s parents aren’t sure what the “norm” for parenting and rules around social media should look like.
When I was in middle school, as soon as I left school I was relieved of the pressure and of the scrutiny I felt from other girls. But today, the bullying follows girls. Negative texts and social media comments can harass a girl 24 hours a day.
Do you have memories of mean girls in middle school? What advice would you give girls on how to navigate the drama years? Share your thoughts and stories in Comments below.
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