Interviewing DR. Michelle Anthony (Female Bullying)

From left to right: Dr. Reyna Lindert and Dr. Michelle Anthony (Authors of ‘Little Girls Can Be Mean’)

DR. MICHELLE ANTHONY has always been passionate about her work with families and children. After graduating with honors in Educational Studies from Brown University, she went on to get her Master’s in Child Studies and Teacher’s Certificate from Tufts University.

She taught in Massachusetts and Rhode Island for five years, after which she got her PhD in Developmental Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley.

Since that time, Michelle has continued to work as a learning specialist with both typical and developmentally-delayed preschool and elementary-aged students in both California and Colorado.

She has also taught graduate-level classes, and has been a speaker at various international conferences on issues related to education and development. In addition to the aforementioned, Michelle is a columnist and writes feature articles for Scholastic’s Parent and Child Magazine. She is a mother to three children, two girls and a boy.

DR. REYNA LINDERT has always wanted and needed to work with young families in order to feel fulfilled personally and professionally. She is a certified parent educator with broad experience working with elementary-aged children and their families. She graduated with distinction in Human Development and Family Studies from Cornell University.

She then earned her MA and PhD in Developmental Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. Reyna is a skilled facilitator and has run numerous interactive parenting workshops for families and children in California and Oregon. Reyna is also currently pursuing a degree in Nursing at Oregon Health & Science University, to continue her work with young families in a health care setting.  She is a mother to three children, two girls and a boy.


We could say that, although we have not evolved as a society when it comes to the issue of bullying, our general perspective on it has certainly evolved. 30 or 20 years ago this form of abuse was not recognised as a societal problem, but more like a natural or even necessary part of our growing years, a part we had to cope with, in order to acquire a certain ‘strength of character’.

Nowadays, however, the general consensus is that bullying is not only detrimental to the individual but to society as a whole.

This shift in our perception could be down to the fact that most of us are being direct or indirect witnesses, thanks to the Internet, of the alarming increase, seriousness and fatal consequences of so many and recent bullying cases.

Suicide statistics show that in the UK at least 16 to 25 children kill themselves each year because they are being bullied at school.  In the U.S., a recent nationwide survey of high schoolers showed that around 16 percent reported that they considered suicide.

We seem to be failing in determining the real root causes to this behaviour when, in essence, it shouldn’t be so hard to realise that children do as they see, and in a world where nasty behaviour is encouraged daily, whether in our personal romantic relationships or group settings, such as the competitive business arena, what do we think that our children are going to emulate?

Because bullying is not only about physical abuse, but also verbal and emotional abuse and it can start as early as in kindergarten, among both boys and girls. In fact, recent studies show that it is among females that bullying can involve larger groups and last far longer.

Dr. Michelle Anthony, respected developmental psychologist and Dr. Reyna Lindert co-wrote the book ‘Little Girls Can Be Mean: Four Steps to Bully-Proof Girls in the Early Grades’
which has been very welcomed by parents and professionals alike.

I had the pleasure to interview Dr. Michelle Anthony on the issue of bullying and on the guide that her and Dr. Lindert wrote to help us help our little treasures.

SRM: Dr. Anthony, thank you for participating in this interview, I’m sure that readers, especially those with little children, will really appreciate it. You are a developmental psychologist, but how did you and your co-author, Dr. Reyna Lindert decide to work on the resulting title of ‘Little Girls Can Be Mean’?

DR. MICHELLE ANTHONY: Thanks so much for inviting me to participate!

My interest in this topic began as a result of my own daughter being enmeshed in a series of “Mean Girl” interactions beginning in first grade, which lasted almost 2 years.

In fact, for almost a year, we didn’t even know it was going on because she was very confused and didn’t tell anyone.

In our research for this book, we learned how many young girls are experiencing similar struggles.  Thus, our goal in writing Little Girls Can Be Mean has been to help parents and other caring adults understand how and why meanness happens, and have a plan for what to do about it.  We also wanted to help parents of elementary-aged children take advantage of the unique opportunity they have to influence and guide girls, before the teen years when peer influence takes over and pushes caring adults away.

SRM: So sorry to hear that your daughter had to go through such terrible experience. And the saddest thing about it is that we can all relate one way or another, which brings us to the following question: Bullying is a natural predisposition or a learned behavioural pattern?

There has always been meanness, but the difference today is the public and permanent nature of the acts.  Electronic media are passed on forever and, unlike when we were young, you can’t get back the original note.  In the eyes of the kids, it is literally everyone and it is literally forever.

However, it’s important to understand that meanness actually serves a developmental function, and very nice girls can do very mean things and still be very nice girls.  When we understand the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of meanness, we are in the best position to use it to serve more appropriate developmental ends.

Girls (like all of us) are actively trying to have power within relationships. Unfortunately, they often don’t know how to make themselves more powerful without it being at the expense of another. This is incidental or accidental meanness. However, usually beginning around 3rd grade, they discover how to use negative power, and the amount of intentional meanness increases.  Without guidance early on, you get the double whammy of two kinds of meanness (incidental and intentional) that only grows as girls age, in both amount and magnitude.

SRM: Are there any differences between male and female’s relational aggressive behaviour?

If you had to stereotype, girls more often use social power—what researchers call relational aggression or social cruelty—to bully their peers. Boys, in contrast, more often use physical intimidation. Boys are usually clear that they dislike the other boy who is bullying them, and they try to avoid them. In contrast, girls are often very good friends with the girl or girls who are meanest to them, and they are confused as to whether what they are experiencing is actually bullying, thus leaving them feeling isolated and alone in their experiences. While the initial “blow” from a girl bully may seem less severe than the physical abuse sustained by a boy bully, the sting and its aftermath lasts much longer, and tends to involve more people.

SRM: The term frenemies came to my mind when you described the peculiar relationship between girls victims and their bullies… ‘Little Girls Can Be Mean’ advises parents and teachers to watch for signs of bullying at very early ages. Would you say that this precocity is something of today’s society or, on the contrary, it’s always been there and it’s just now that we’re starting to give it importance?

DR. MICHELLE ANTHONY: I think it’s both.  Meanness has always existed and will always exist.  And, as I mentioned before, it actually serves a developmental function to help girls seek power.  However, left unchecked or without intervention and guidance, it grows.

This growth is fostered in a culture where social media and the spread of technology continue to increase and fuel an exaggerated and inappropriate sense of power, reach, and influence in young children.

The prevalence of “reality TV” shows that highlight, stage, and manipulate interpersonal conflict only adds to children’s confusion over how to relate to peers and rivals. As adults, we understand how these shows are designed to exploit conflict for entertainment; our children do not.

SRM: You hit the nail on the head there. Children are always going to emulate what adults show them to be adults’ behaviour (not sure if “adult” could be the term to describe that particular behaviour…) How can parents detect if their child is being bullied when they have not been alerted by the child or anybody else at their school?

As I mentioned, this happened with my own daughter and there is no worse feeling than realizing your child has been suffering and you did not even know it was happening. If I had known then what the signs were, I could have helped her so much sooner, and that’s something we describe throughout the book. Because we often have set notions of what behaviours are defined as “bullying,” a lot of girl meanness is not identified as such—neither by the kids themselves nor by the adults who care for them.

The key is to follow the Four Step process: Observe, Connect, Guide, and Support to Act. We walk you through this in detail with all kinds of situations, but in beginning with Step 1: Observe, look for some common ways that girls this age react when they are experiencing friendship struggles or are targets of bullying:

. They stop liking previously enjoyed activities.
. They use “code words” like “No one would play with me,” “She’s not my friend anymore,” and so on.
. They begin to have more fights with siblings.
. They have mood changes:  they seem more argumentative or more down.
. They begin complaining of more headaches or stomachaches , etc.

SRM: Those are some of the most obvious signs, indeed. Now, when it comes to the school environment, are teachers and counsellors liable for not intervening in incidents of bullying, when the bullying in itself isn’t as detectable as for example in the male physical bullying? What responsibility of intervention must lie on the parents of each child, whether victim, perpetrator or bystander?

DR. MICHELLE ANTHONY: This is always a tough one. By and large, teachers and schools are doing the best they can with the tools and resources they have. In our book, we help caring educators better understand and deal with relational aggression and social bullying in the educational context. My husband is the Principal at a K-8 school and I know first-hand how hard it is to address these issues from the school’s perspective, especially when we as a society have not given schools the power or resources to deal more comprehensively with these issues.

Parents can and should involve the appropriate authorities (school or otherwise) whenever they feel their child (or another) is at risk or in danger.

That said, the real key is not “How do we punish these problems?,” but, “How do we work to prevent them?,” and, “What is our educational guidance when they (inevitably) happen?”. It is so important to know that girls this age are able to be influenced, they are malleable, they can be guided. Nice girls do mean things, and they are still nice girls.

They are nice girls who need caring adults—both parents and teachers—to engage in the Four Steps: Observe the inappropriate behaviour (notice it…see it), Connect with the girl over what she was trying to do (have influence, feel important, etc.), work together to Guide her to meet those appropriate goals in a more appropriate way, and Support her to Act on her own choices within her social sphere.

These are the same Four Steps to follow, whether you are a parent, teacher, or administrator, and the same Four Steps to follow whether your child is a target, a bystander, or is mean herself. The goal is, if we can better understand where this meanness comes from, we can move away from labelling these kids and, instead, we can all (parent, teacher, society) work towards changing the trajectory at these early ages.

SRM: In ‘Little Girls Can Be Mean’ you propose this 4 step guide to ‘bully-proof’ little girls. What has been the general feedback received from parents and/or teachers who have already read the book?

What I hear over and over from parents and teachers alike is how excited they are to have a coherent, easy-to-follow plan to help support their children/students when they inevitably face these issues, and how immediately they and their children/students/whole class feel the benefits. This plan allows them to work with their child, student, or class (but not take over) as they support individuals and groups to develop new skills and resources to face any number of sticky social situations, whether the child they care about is a target, bystander, or is slipping into meanness.

SRM: Dr. Anthony, thank you again for your time and for your and Dr. Lindert’s great contribution to tackling this serious social issue.

The link to the ‘Little Girls Can Be Mean’ website is at the end of this piece, to allow readers obtain their copy easily.

DR. MICHELLE ANTHONY: Thank you so much for this opportunity to reach your audience. Not only can they get the book directly from us, but all major booksellers carry it as well. I hope it can bring to your readers what it has brought to families here.


A very special message from SAIDAT for you, boys and girls, who are experiencing bullying whether at school, online or both (YOU ARE NOT ALONE), and for you, kids and adults, who may be witnessing others being bullied (Do not hesitate to stand up for what is right: TOGETHER WE CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE)