Katie Hurley, LCSW, is an author, speaker, and psychotherapist with more than 20 years of experience working with youth. She has treated children in pre- and post- Snapchat eras, has seen the worrisome shifts that constant access to cellphones and technology has caused in patterns of bullying and increased anxiety. Katie’s latest book, No More Mean Girls, will be available in January. She recently spoke with Psycom about what she’s learned from working with girls, including how much time they really want to be spending with their parents.

 

What motivated you to write this book?

In my practice counseling young children and adolescents, I was hearing about relationships that were becoming very destructive. But that goes back 20 years ago, before social media was a huge factor in kids’ lives.

The common thread that kept coming up was girls turning on each other; I saw older elementary and middle school girls turning their backs on one another when frustrated or upset. Girls experience a somewhat minor conflict and instead of working it out, they exclude the “problem” girl and encourage others to do the same. Instead of working things out, they isolate certain girls and change the group structure without warning. It’s a huge problem right now.

From exclusive lunch tables to excluding girls from parties and sleepovers, young girls are hurting their peers by way of icing them out. This was behavior that you might expect at the middle school/high school level, but I was seeing it in much younger girls who are less able to cope with it.

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So I started working with groups of children and I learned very quickly that when you get them together and talk about the elephant in the room—the hurt that results from ignoring each other —and get really honest with them, they start to understand each other better. Beneath negative behavior after all resides a world of hurt.

Sometimes girls try to avoid exploring the big feelings they experience and instead focus on blaming each other for what’s not working. Enabling them to get to the root of the feelings gives them the opportunity to talk about the unspoken problems and start to work them out.

From there, I started to specialize in anxiety disorders, generalized anxiety, separation anxiety, and social anxiety, and learning disorders, including the low self-esteem and symptoms of anxiety related to learning differences. A lot of anxiety stems from social interaction of course and the pressure to be perfect and to be popular

I have to admit I didn’t understand the term “mean girls” until I got to college and came face to face with some young women who nearly destroyed me. It was a terrible experience that I’ve always carried with me. I got through it because of my support network—exceptional parents and friends, but a lot of girls don’t have that. Because I played hockey I had a group of girls outside of my everyday school friends. Many girls don’t have additional friend groups to draw from.

I decided to do the book because I couldn’t stop thinking about the topic and wanted to share the current research and wrap it up in a way that will help parents learn how to help their daughters.

Katie Hurley, LCSW

What sort of changes have you seen among kids and teens during your 20 years in the field?

One thing we know is that anxiety disorders have spiked. Depressive disorders had been the most prevalent but anxiety disorders have taken over now. Girls are facing more pressure from more sources at younger ages. It’s hard because girls are getting conflicting messages. On the one hand we’re telling first- through third-graders that the world is their oyster, that girls can do anything. I mean, we nearly elected a female president. High achievement is finally possible.

On the flip side, parents—with the best of intentions—are over-scheduling girls to a point where they’re falling apart. They want them to have every opportunity now that those opportunities are available, and they’re doing them all at once.

Childhood is all but forgotten in many families. Thirty years ago, you came home from school and you had a snack and you went outside for 5 hours. Kids don’t do that anymore, and especially girls. They come home from school and they go to Kumon for extra math tutoring so they can excel in STEM fields. From there they go soccer practice, and then they go rehearsal for the play they’ve been cast in. Everyday they’re stacked with adult-directed activities, so they don’t get to really learn how to be people.

It’s nice to have adult-directed activities some of the time, but childhood should be a time of trial and error. If kids aren’t ever left to their own devices they don’t learn how to cope with hard stuff and they don’t really learn how to get through things on their own.

They’re also not being given any time to decompress. The whole world is yelling about how moms need to make time for self-care and yet we don’t give our kids any opportunity to engage in the same thing.

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Girls in particular are facing academic stress, social stress; many parents are allowing 9 and 10 year-olds to use Instagram and Snapchat. It doesn’t matter how many warnings are out there, they’re using them. So that’s an added pressure. It’s really tricky to navigate that other world without a lot of guidance and support. And then athletic pressure, the pressure for extra-curriculars…

So the message becomes: “The world is your oyster, be the best one.” What happens when girls face that type of pressure is they turn on each other. They’re trying to step all over each other to get to the top instead of lifting each other up along the way.

Did any of your research surprise you?  

Parents [often think] that teenagers don’t want our input and are constantly embarrassed by us. Research, however, on 12-17 year old girls found that girls want to go to their parents for help. They will primarily go to their mothers, but if mothers are not available they switch to dad. Ninety-one percent of girls ages 8-12 turn to their mothers; 54% go to their parents.

Additionally, 7 of 10 girls believe they are not good enough and do not measure up. So that’s kind of alarming statistically in terms of girls because here we are at a time in America where we’re sort of celebrating the girl and boy scouts are now going to let girls in and all of these things are happening for girls, and yet 7 in 10 think they’re not good enough. That’s kind of alarming.

Parents need to know that our kids want us to help them. They don’t want us to fix everything. They don’t want us to tell them to shake it off and everybody goes through difficult times  because that’s not fair. That’s hurtful. They’re confiding in us and we tell them to suck it up and get over it, they’ll be fine. They’re wanting us to listen, they’re wanting us to connect with them.

I’ll say [to groups of girls] “how many of you know your parents are watching?” They’ll put their hands in the air. Then, I’ll say, “how many of you want your parents to be watching and giving you feedback on what you’re doing?”. Guess what? They all keep their hands in the air because they know they’re not always getting it right.

They’re looking for parent’s guidance. Are they going to maybe be snarky at times with all those hormones raging through their brains? Sure. But this whole idea that the teenage years are this horrible train ride of fights, of arguments, is really not true and it’s not what our girls want, either. The more we perpetuate that myth, the more true it gets. We sort of drive a wedge in our relationship before we even get there. If we just take a slower path with our kids and stay connected and have that 1-on-1 time… Girls crave 1-on-1 times with their moms. They crave it. They’re begging for it and everybody is too busy to give it and they want it.

They want to snuggle up and watch a movie, but they don’t want mom on the phone when they’re watching the movie. They want to go shopping. They want to go out to lunch. They want to go for a walk. They want to ride bikes. They want to do stuff, and we’re too busy to do it with them. And when we’re too busy to give it to them we make that wedge even bigger.

Last Updated: May 14, 2018