A recent Washington Post Magazine article addressed the question of whether mean girls grow out of their socially aggressive behavior. The article, by Laura Sessions Stepp, titled “What happens when mean girls grow up?” makes the argument that girls that exhibit hurtful behavior towards their peers at an early age usually grow out of such behavior. Stepp concludes that as these girls grow and mature, they realize that their previous behavior was wrong and not socially acceptable. Thus, the mean girls usually don’t grow up to be mean women.
A recent study, however, contradicts this conclusion. The study, done by Nathalie M.G. Fontaine of Indiana University in Bloomington, finds that children who are remorseless bullies “often go on to develop severe behavioral problems such as fighting, lying, and stealing.” Fontaine’s study is the largest and most thorough one to date, drawing on reports from the parents and teachers of roughly 9,500 twins born in the mid-1990s, tracking them at ages 7, 9, and 12.
Fountaine stated in a recent Washington Post article that a growing body of work has linked “callous-unemotional traits” to behavior problems later in life. The conclusions of the study suggest that the truly mean girls, the callous ones that do not exhibit guilt or remorse, may in fact grow up to be mean women.
Why do the article and the study reach such different conclusions? Maybe the two findings are actually more complimentary than contradictory. It’s possible that the article and the study are describing two different motivations for being mean. Most mean children act mean in order to navigate their social environment or deal with certain difficulties in their life. They feel guilt and sadness at their behavior but they do not know how to be strong enough to deal with their troubles or combat peer influence. But once they mature and enter a social environment where they no longer feel vulnerable, usually after high school, they stop exhibiting such mean behavior. It is these types of kids that Stepp’s article addresses.
These children are different than the much smaller group of kids who are mean without justification or feelings of remorse or guilt for their behavior. The study addresses this second group of children, finding that, unfortunately, they will most likely continue to have behavioral problems long into adulthood.
So even though most mean girls probably don’t grow up to be mean women, the few that do are the ones that are the most toxic and emotionally dangerous to be around and the ones that will probably never change their ways.