Parenting in the Age of Relational Aggression and the Mean Girl Culture: Thoughts on Alice Churnock’s Article

This week, Rooted wants to spend some time addressing the “Mean Girl” culture common amongst many middle and high school students. Carolyn Lankford is mom to three children now in their twenties and a regular contributor to the Rooted blog. Her article is in response to Alice Churnock’s article that was published today entitled, The Mean Girl Culture: Relational Aggression Amongst Young People.


If you are the parent of a fifth grade through senior high age child, Alice Churnock’s article over on the youth ministry side of the Rooted blog is a helpful tool in your parental toolbox. Read it so you may be informed the same way you need to be informed on substance abuse and the rising suicide rates of this demographic. The statistical and experiential weight of Alice’s article on relational aggression, or bullying, is heavy indeed. No socio-economic, ethnic, or religious group gets a pass. This is our children’s world.

Alice’s article resurrected a long buried memory for me. I was a major player in the bullying of another girl when I was in fifth grade – the age when, according to Alice’s article, relational aggression typically begins.

In the middle of the school year, my class welcomed a new student who had moved to town with her mother and no mention of a dad. She had the body of a 14-year-old, and (the clincher), very noticeable body odor. This was great news for girls like me who were desperate to have a greater misfit in the fifth grade cosmos. After my fellow cohorts and I had exhausted the many ways we could ignore her, we planned our next amusement: to write her an anonymous note and put it in her desk. The words in the note were my pitiful idea. It said, “Mum’s the word. Keep it under your arms.” Mum was the name of a deodorant.

The enjoyment I anticipated from observing this poor girl find and read our note did not materialize. The moment I saw her face go from hopefulness to bewilderment to shame, I felt remorse and my own shame. I knew her hurt. I knew what it felt like to fight back tears and feel completely alone and unloved in an unwelcoming classroom.

Alice’s research and experience as a counselor is in the age of social media, which did not exist when I was in the fifth grade. When addressing this current epidemic of bullying, it is important to help our kids see that the decision to ostracize and hurt another person is not a phenomenon particular to the internet. While social media can turn a brush fire into a wild fire, the human inclination to sin against our neighbor began in the garden. We cannot blame relational aggression solely on social media, and we must see our precious children as not only potential victims but also potential aggressors.

In my fifth grade experience, I witnessed the effect of my cruelty. This was for me the redeeming piece of the incident. I did not feel good about what I did. I did not receive any satisfaction. In some of Alice’s examples of bullying, the victim was hurt just as much as my target was hurt, but thanks to the anonymity of the internet, the perpetrators did not witness the effect of their aggression. It is easier to bully when you do not see in real time what it does to a fellow human being.

My own children certainly had brushes with relational aggression. Our daughter did not get invited to a sleep over and endured an evening of prank calling from the group of girls having a big time together at the party. Our son was recruited by some “popular” guys to tease his Social Studies teacher about her rumored romantic life with a fellow teacher. Our son thought she was in on the joke. The joke was on our son. He had to deal with the consequences of that invasion of privacy and disrespect for his teacher when really he had just wanted to be included.

These two events in my children’s lives were tough for them and for me. My daughter was inconsolable that night. She had friends at that party and she could not believe they would participate in a prank led by a troubled girl who kids feared more than they liked. My only response in the beginning was being there for my daughter. As time healed her hurt a bit, I encouraged her to talk with her friends about her experience. The friends were apologetic and remorseful. Their friendships survived and my girl gained a perspective that has served her well.

My son’s experience was more nuanced. He had to endure the (appropriate) wrath of his teacher, as well as the embarrassment of everybody knowing he had being duped by the cool kids. I commanded him to write a letter to his teacher sincerely apologizing and making it clear that he had learned a tremendous lesson. What began under great protest became therapeutic as he put in his own words how badly he felt. The teacher appreciated the letter and she forgave him. Unfortunately, for his bruised ego, time was his primary friend.

Jesus’ work on the cross responds sufficiently to the aggressor and the victim. Our children need to know and believe this. The crucifixion was the ultimate act of bullying. It was shameful, mocking, public, and completely dehumanizing. Jesus suffered it all. He died for the sinners hanging on the crosses next to him, and he died for the aggressors who delighted in his torture. “Jesus said, ‘Father forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’” (Luke 23: 34)

May our children know that they are loved so powerfully and comprehensively that the insecurities and mayhem of adolescent life are but a fleeting shadow in light of the Good News. May our children also know what they are doing when their insecurities and desires to fit in tempt them to commit, or go along with, an act of relational aggression. Alice Churnock is a blessing to her young clients. She concludes, “Because of what Christ has done for us, gracious words are the final words.” Let us spread that message like a wildfire!

Carolyn Lankford lives in Birmingham, Alabama and has three grown children with her late husband, Frank. Formerly a co-director of Christian Education at the Church of the Advent, Carolyn served as the Advancement Officer at Beeson Divinity School at Samford University before transitioning back to the Advent to work as Interim Director of Women's Ministry from 2021-2022.

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