Handle Mean Girls This Way, According To A Psychologist

Everyone encounters a mean girl from time to time, but many people have never really learned how to handle one effectively. Sadly, mean-girl behavior doesn't discriminate by age, and it's not unusual for someone in their 40s or 50s to deal with it at the same time as, say, their teenager. 


Known in scientific circles as "relational aggression," mean-girl behavior doesn't cause physical harm, leaving it to often be minimized or completely overlooked by parents and other adults. This can include creating rumors about people, gossiping, trying to disparage relationships between friends, excluding people to intentionally cause them emotional pain, and generally manipulating people, according to a study published in the scholarly journal Behavioral Sciences. A lack of black eyes and broken bones doesn't mean that serious damage isn't being done, however. In fact, the long-term effects of bullying are well-documented, with it often resulting in absences from school/work, reduced ability to deal with stress, depression, and much more, according to a study published in the scholarly journal Archives of Disease in Childhood


With mean-girl behavior rampant in the teen years, most research and advice is centered on this vulnerable age group. However, New York City-based neuropsychologist and director of Comprehend the Mind Dr. Sanam Hafeez gave Glam an exclusive rundown on how best to handle mean girls, no matter your age.

The best reaction is no reaction

Thanks to the internet, mean-girl behavior can happen at any time. Worth noting, too, is that anyone of any gender can be a mean girl — they're simply called "mean girls" thanks to director Mark Waters' 2004 film of the same name. (An instant classic, we can all agree.) So, unless you're completely off the social media grid or simply taking a social media break, hurtful comments and actions can strike a person even when they're just sitting on their couch, all by themselves. Dr. Sanam Hafeez says it's best to avoid providing any sort of reaction, no matter how difficult that is. Instead, "maintain your composure and self-confidence. Remember that their behavior says more about them than it does about you," she exclusively tells Glam. 


Even though your instinct may be to stick up for yourself (or a friend, as the case may be), retaliation will only make things worse and perpetuate the cycle. "Rise above their negativity and focus on maintaining your own integrity," Dr. Hafeez explains. Ideally, practicing this restraint on repeat as needed will prevent the situation from blowing up into an all-out war. If nothing else, Dr. Hafeez says that choosing to ignore this behavior makes it clear that you're not easily swayed or affected by negativity.

Ignoring mean-girl behavior is actually good for you

The data on mental health is profound and inarguable. In fact, 57.8 million people (22.8% of the population) in the U.S. experienced a mental health-related issue in 2021, per the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Of those, less than half actually sought professional treatment. Mean-girl encounters can further wreak havoc on a person's mental health, which can cause a ripple effect of additional emotional and even physical issues down the line. "Engaging with negativity can take a toll on your mental and emotional well-being," Dr. Sanam Hafeez exclusively tells us. "Ignoring mean comments helps you protect your self-esteem and maintain a positive mindset."


Ideally, by refusing to validate the mean girl's insults or manipulation with any sort of reaction, the behavior will cease. "Mean individuals might thrive on eliciting reactions; by denying them this satisfaction, you might discourage them from continuing their hurtful behavior," Dr. Hafeez adds. There's an old saying that a bully is only as powerful as you allow them to be. Hopefully, by taking away that power, the problem will simply go away.

Tread carefully if you do engage a mean girl

A lot of people simply can't let an insult or vicious action go unaddressed. If you must engage, the way you do it is absolutely critical to maintaining your own integrity. "Responding with anger or defensiveness could lead to a back-and-forth exchange that only makes things worse," Dr. Sanam Hafeez exclusively explains to Glam. 


Again, remain calm and composed. Then, she says to use "I" statements to explain to the mean girl how you are being affected by their actions and words. This will avoid placing heaps of blame on the offender (thus putting them on the defensive) but will make your case clear. "Clearly communicate your boundaries and let them know that their behavior is not acceptable," Dr. Hafeez offers, adding that you should "be assertive but not aggressive." There's no guarantee that the mean girl in question will actually take what you said to heart, but you can at least say that you tried to salvage the friendship in a mature manner.

Use it as an opportunity for growth

Many of life's great challenges provide us with opportunities to learn and grow as empathetic human beings. Dealing with a mean girl is no different because there's often more going on behind the scenes than you realize. Dr. Sanam Hafeez says that mean girls are often behaving that way because they have significant insecurities, past traumas, or just the age-old need for attention (no matter how negative it is). "Understanding these underlying motivations can evoke a sense of empathy, as you realize that their behavior might be a result of their own struggles," Dr. Hafeez exclusively tells Glam. Sadly, sayings along the lines of "you never know what people are going through, so be kind" apply to mean girls, too. 


That's not to say that you have to put up with rotten behavior from toxic friends. "While it's essential to cultivate empathy and understanding for others, including those who exhibit negative behavior, it's also crucial to maintain healthy boundaries and protect your own well-being," Dr. Hafeez explains. So, you can be empathetic while still keeping yourself out of the line of fire, including potentially ending toxic friendships.

Put a positive spin on mean-girl behavior

If you're feeling extra empathetic toward the mean girl, it might be worth a conversation. "If a mean individual recognizes that their behavior is negatively affecting others, they might be more inclined to reflect and make amends," Dr. Sanam Hafeez exclusively tells us. You can do this by broaching an honest conversation, but keep it non-confrontational. Tell the person that you're available to talk if they want to open up and gently offer resources for personal growth, like a self-help book or the name of a therapist.


On the other hand, it's absolutely fine to silently wish them well and move along your own path, which may include professional help if the damage is deep enough. Lastly, it sometimes takes a bad relationship to really illuminate the positive ones in our lives. "By not giving attention to mean behavior, you can redirect your focus toward positive relationships and interactions that uplift and support you," Dr. Hafeez explains. At the end of the day, the mean girl has to make her own change a priority. The one thing you have control over is your own behavior, so surround yourself instead with people who bring out the best in you, rather than those who hurt you or make you see red.

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.