Are They Mean Girls, Or Just Toddlers?

I was a mean girl. In the second grade, rather inauthentically, I picked on the new girl. I started a club, and invited every girl in our class to join but her. I rallied a callous gang to hold hands and skip in a circle chanting a made-up song about killing the new girl’s cat. Thirty years later, I couldn’t tell you why I did it, why I stopped, or how it even came to be that my own social standing sank to that of untouchable by the time I reached junior high. But when I see my daughter and her little girl gang starting to play the in-crowd/out-crowd game at 2 years old, the sickening lurch I felt when my Girl Scout troop hung my teddy bear from a tree returns. Isn’t 2 too young for cattiness and cruelty? These girls can barely recognize their colors, yet their ability to recognize perform the role of mean girls as toddlers — to taunt the “other” — is terrifyingly well-honed.

I’m not talking about the usual toddler altercations — teary battles over sought-after toys, shoves on the playground. Or even about open aggression, like hitting and biting. I’m talking about toddlers (for the most part girls) walking up to other children and gloating as they announce, “You not my friend.” About my daughter and her best friend blocking the slide and scornfully informing a smaller girl, who is eager to play, “There no space for you.” Or watching my daughter’s face crumple when three of her friends line up and sneer “No, FiFi,” and effectively bar her from joining their game.

We, the parents, are horrified to see our daughters acting like baby bullies. Do they know they’re being hurtful? We wonder. One mom confesses that her daughter seems to visibly enjoy excluding other children. The rest of us nod in defeated agreement. Are our children sociopaths? Sadists? Or is this just another manifestation of the infamous boundary pushing that is the very essence of toddlerdom?

“What I would say is these behaviors need to be ‘course-corrected’ immediately, and that exclusion is the meanest form of bullying,” wrote Maureen Healy, author of The Emotionally Healthy Child, to Romper in an email that gave me a pang and may have been keyed to children, but ironically felt a bit devoid of emotional sensitivity when it came to parents. “Children learn to bully by being bullied by siblings, peers or other adults in their lives.”

Yes, parents, stop stalking around the playground, denouncing one other in front of your toddler. But really, if it were only that simple; I don’t think it is.

Even more desperate to understand the “why” behind this behavior, I started reading about empathy. I was hopeful at first, seeking articles to assure me that empathy doesn’t rear it’s beautiful face until a child is 5, maybe even 7 or 8 (certainly older than I was when composing violent songs about the death of other children’s pets). I was gravely disappointed by what I found.

Humans are born empaths, and we start expressing our awareness of others’ feelings during the first year of life, by mirroring emotions. By 2, children have developed a somewhat crude understanding of self and other as separate beings, and begin to offer help to those in distress, sometimes even consolation. If their teddy bear makes them stop crying, they may offer it to another crying child. (Or, as real-life evidence has shown me, they may do no such thing, and cling to said teddy bear more tightly lest it be taken away to soothe another in need.) Finally, when a child reaches 3 years old, they can recognize a variety of feelings in other people, and begin reaching out with true empathy when they witness pain and suffering.

Where are all these 3-year-old empaths, I ask?

While my hours trawling parenting and psychology websites gave me some frame of reference, none of the information I found actually answered my questions about why otherwise well-adjusted, sweet little girls — playmates who hug one another, feed one another, laugh and sing and play together — just as easily turn on one another, and take blatant pleasure in shutting other children out.

It hadn’t occurred to me that my anxiety was a projection of my own issues, not a problem that belonged to my daughter.

That is, until I found Dr. Dafne Milne, a psychiatrist who specializes in attachment-based psychotherapy for mothers and children from birth to 3 years of age.

“First, I'd just like to comment on how interesting it is to associate 2year-olds' conflicts with ‘mean girls,’” she wrote by email. “The idea of mean girls typically conjures up images of middle school or high school relationships that most of us adults can remember suffering through.” While that mode of social behavior does not make sense if you’re talking about toddlers, she explained, “it is developmentally appropriate in some ways for teens to learn about socializing in this way.”

My heart soared. It hadn’t occurred to me that my anxiety was a projection of my own issues, not a problem that belonged to my daughter. But Dr. Milne’s insights made sense. “It is incredible how much our little one's behaviors can elicit strong reactions from us, triggering feelings or memories of unresolved or painful experiences we once had. These reactions can sometimes cause us to interpret our children's behaviors in ways that don't exactly fit their actual intentions (i.e., seeing a 'mean girl,' which is a label we give to older girls, in a developing 2-year-old).”


It is strange and fascinating how blurred the line between self and child can be, especially when our children are very young, and, in many ways, still exist as extensions of ourselves.

So what, then, does this behavior mean? Dr. Milne says, “A 2-year-old excluding other children can mean so many things, and, as is the typical mantra when it comes to individuals, their feelings, and their behaviors... the answer to why is of course, it depends.” She went on to assure me, “It is perfectly normal for children at the age of 2 to find it difficult to share their toys and space, and perhaps to feel more comfortable with one child over another. They have not yet developed the self-awareness or empathy we wish for them to have, and for that they need us!”

It is strange and fascinating how blurred the line between self and child can be, especially when our children are very young.

So what next?

Talk to your toddler. How can I expect my daughter to make sense of the complex emotions she feels, many of which are brand new, when I can barely make sense of them? Open a dialogue about feelings: how certain behaviors and situations make your child feel, and how they might make other children feel. They may understand, they may not, but eventually they will grasp the fact that the people around them have the same powerful emotions they do.

Books help. There are a dozens of books designed to introduce toddlers to different emotions, but any old book with pictures will do. You can turn naming emotions into a game. Someone is happy, what makes them happy. Another person is sad. Why? My daughter gives the same answer to that one every time, be it a crying baby or a downcast elephant: either “she want her mommy” or “her mommy is mad.” But one day that will change. My daughter’s concept of emotion will broaden, and she’ll begin to recognize the sadness of the other as different from, but as real as, her own.

Another approach that has appealed to me is teaching my daughter what it means to be a friend. Only big girls can be friends, I tell her, and the concept immediately increases in value. Of course the hard work is teaching her about compassion, inclusion, and acceptance, the values that lie at the core of true friendship. But we’re working on it, and at least the framework is there. Books help with this, too. Check out this comprehensive list for some suggestions.

In the meantime, I continue to remind myself that empathy is as imperfect as we are. Sometimes it serves us well, and sometimes it doesn’t show up when we need it, no matter how old and wise we think we are. Maybe the most empathetic thing I can do right now is to show my daughter the same compassion I want her to show others, even when she’s behaving badly. After all, it’s up to me to teach my daughter all I know about kindness.