"Mean Girls" Appearing as Young as Four Years Old

"Mean Girls" Appearing as Young as Four Years Old

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Kim Johnson ReportingChances are, if you're a parent of a daughter you're going to be trying to help her cope with the antics of "mean girls" at some point in her life. She might be manipulated, excluded, shunned, or simply labeled not cool enough for the click.

While boys can be physically aggressive, girls tend to be more aggressive in relationships, which is often more damaging. Best-sellers like "Odd Girl Out", and "Queen Bees and Wanna Bees", and the recent movie "Mean Girls" indicate the social dynamic among girls is on a lot of minds. And what's particularly troubling is that mean girl behavior starts at such a young age.

Mean girls, while they're getting a lot of attention in the media right now, they've always been around. Martha McClenny has seen plenty of mean girl behavior in her twenty years of teaching school.

Martha McClenny, Kindergarten teacher, Blessed Sacrament Catholic School: "My surprise is that it's getting down to this level with little kids four and five years old. That's the big shock factor for me."

McClenny says recently a five-year old girl tried to form a club similar to one the child had seen on a television program.

Martha McClenny: "She was saying certain kids could not belong to it, and only certain kids could, and if they didn't belong to it she wouldn't ever play with them again, or talk to them again."

Five-year old Katie Bertram says she was asked to join the club.

Katie Bertram: "It was the Cheetah Club and I had to do mean stuff to belong, and not tell on her."

Katie says she and other club members also had to follow the ringleader and do what she said.

Katie Bertram: "In the bathroom she said, like, you'll be kicked out of the club if you tell on me."

Katie was kicked out. While her experience is anecdotal, BYU researchers have confirmed children her age and even younger are engaging in mean girl behavior. For several months researchers observed preschoolers on a playground. They then interviewed the children and their teachers. Their results are groundbreaking.

David Nelson, BYU Professor, "Mean Girls" Study: "It was clear evidence that as early as age four you've already got kids who know how to manipulate the peer group. They know how to fit in with people they want to fit in with, who might have social power and dominance, and reject those who they think are worthy of rejection."

Clyde Robinson, BYU Professor, "Mean Girls" Study: "The surprising thing is that children at this age are that sophisticated to be able to pick up on these strategies. They have to know the strategies, of how to hurt, how to reject people, how to shun and use their body language, turn a cold shoulder, say you can't be my friend, you won't be able to play with us."

Such strategies amount to what researchers call relational aggression. They can't confirm yet where the children are learning relational aggression techniques, but they have their suspicions.

Clyde Robinson: "If you can establish it at this young of an age, then you know they're picking it up from their environment. A lot of times they may be picking it up from their family, in their homes, listening to what's going on."

Robinson says if parents or siblings are saying mean things, or using psychologically controlling techniques, little children are going to pick up on it. The danger is when relationally aggressive children become adults; they have trouble in marriage.

Experts say morality in children is developmental. Parents need to help children develop empathy for others, for example, saying 'how would you feel if this happened to you?'

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