She’s the judgy mom in your parent group, the coworker excluding you from meetings, and the late-night name-caller trolling you on social media. Some call her a “Karen” but she’s certainly a grown-up mean girl.
If you haven’t experienced unkindness, exclusion or passive aggression from another female until now, consider yourself lucky. For some of us who grew up with mean girls like Regina George and her posse, the Plastics, from the movie, “Mean Girls,” we eagerly thought we’d left the bullying behavior in high school. But anyone who’s spent much time in adulthood knows bullying doesn’t end after graduation.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, bullying is “unwanted, aggressive behavior” that involves a power imbalance, whether real or perceived, against someone else. Bullying occurs at every age, not just in childhood, and can take place anywhere: work, school, online, friend groups and on the sidelines at your child’s sporting event.
“Bullying can take the form of physical words or subtle actions to physical, emotional or verbal abuse,” said Jerimya Fox, a licensed professional counselor and a doctor of behavioral health at Banner Behavioral Health Hospital.
If you’ve come face-to-face with your own grown-up mean girl, we’re here to help. Read on to better understand what makes people like this tick and what strategies you can use to succeed despite their bullying behavior.
Why do adult women bully?
Some bullies may grow up and learn the error in their ways. They may even apologize and later redeem themselves. But others may grow into mean adults who continue to make others’ lives a living hell. It appears Regina George grew up and joined the cast of the “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.”
Grown-up mean girls continue to bully for the same reasons they bullied in their teens. “They want power and to be in charge, and they do this by pushing buttons to keep someone off balance and then repeat this behavior,” Dr. Fox said. “This makes them feel strong and in control, while the victim is left confused, wondering what’s happening.”
Mean girl behavior is often relational aggression, or alternative aggression, an indirect but harmful form of social bullying. Unlike physical harm, those who engage in relationship aggression want to make a person look bad to others, to bring them down or take away what the other person has.
If you happen to find yourself in a “friendship” or friend group like this, run! You aren’t in a healthy relationship that accepts and respects you. You’re in a toxic relationship.
[Also read “10 Signs You’re in a Toxic Friendship”]
How to respond to a grown-up mean girl?
When you find yourself at the receiving end of an adult mean girl, it’s easy to question yourself—your self-worth, self-esteem and self-identity. However, you owe it to yourself and your family to not ever put up with bullying of any kind.
Dr. Fox shared five tips on how to handle a bully, whether it’s a mean mom, parent, coworker or anyone you may encounter.
1. Know your fundamental rights as person
First, and foremost, know your human rights. “You have the right to be treated with respect, the right to get what you pay for, the right to protect yourself from being threatened physically, mentally and emotionally, and you have the right to say ‘no,’” Dr. Fox said.
If this relationship isn’t meeting those human rights, it’s best to remove yourself from that relationship.
2. Seek understanding and have sympathy
Once you’ve given yourself time to cool down and think clearly after an encounter, take some time to understand the bully’s perspective. Take a moment to stand in their shoes.
Most often bullies – even the Regina Georges of the world – lack self-esteem and confidence. In an effort to boost their self-esteem, they become controlling and demanding, alienate others, spread lies and rumors all to paint others in a bad light and make them look, well, fabulous and popular.
“Their negative behavior has everything to do with them and nothing to do with you,” Dr. Fox said. “Don’t waste your time trying to figure out how to change or how to make someone like her like you. Instead sympathize with what she must be going through to bully others.”
3. Create strong boundaries
Decide what you are willing to tolerate and what you’re absolutely not willing to tolerate. Become clear on what you will accept and not accept.
When speaking with the woman in person, set and keep clear boundaries with her but be prepared to keep your cool and avoid impulsive behavior if she doesn’t respond positively.
After this, avoid and ignore this woman when you can. If she is on your social media pages, delete or block them. This not only helps you from seeing her passive-aggressive, dramatic posts, but it also stops her from having any part of your personal life.
4. Keep notes
Whether the grown-up mean girl is verbally or physically bullying you, document the behavior.
“Write down when the bullying occurs and ensure there is a witness to the bullying,” Dr. Fox said. “If you’re getting bullied at work, document and report to your human resources department.”
If bullying is occurring on school grounds, say at a PTO meeting, school pickup or school event, report to the school administration.
5. Build other friendships
Social groups are a breeding ground for cliques. Whether it be the PTO, parent group or coworkers, know that you don’t have to be friends with everyone in the group – particularly if they are bullying you. You can be polite and friendly, but you don’t have to try and force something that isn’t mutually beneficial.
Look for others who you can develop healthier and deeper friendships with. This may mean taking that first step and reaching out to make plans. Who knows? It could be the start of a beautiful friendship.
Should I talk to a therapist?
If you’re unable to resolve through conversations with trusted friends, family or those in human resources, engage in talk therapy with a licensed behavioral health specialist. A therapist can help you process your feelings and arm you with the tools to effectively navigate this toxic relationship.
To find a Banner behavioral health specialist, visit bannerhealth.com.
“Ultimately, life is too short to spend with people who treat you poorly,” Dr. Fox said. “Surround yourself with kind, compassionate people who aren’t self-serving. These types of people will lessen the impact of the grown-up mean girls.”