The 2004 cinematic masterpiece “Mean Girls” didn’t delve too deep into the Plastics’ family lives, save for Regina George’s mom trying to live vicariously through her Queen Bee daughter. But if we had gotten to see more of the girls’ family dynamics, chances are we’d discover their parents were largely responsible for their so-called meanness.
According to a new study from the University of Vermont, students whose parents manipulate or guilt-trip them are more likely to be mean and aggressive toward their peers. Psychologists interviewed 180 mostly female college students about their family lives and their tendencies to act aggressively. They found that students with controlling parents were more likely to exhibit “relational aggression,” which involves harmful actions like exclusion, public embarrassment, gossip and backstabbing. Those with off-hands parents, however, tended to be less mean.
Students were also asked about incidents in which they were hurt (like arguments or breakups) while having their perspiration levels monitored. Those levels were used to measure participants’ “stress responses,” indicating how emotionally worked-up they get when reliving hurtful experiences. Those who perspired more tended to get more upset and react impulsively, while those who perspired less took a more cool and calculating approach to conflict. The latter group, researchers theorized, made them more like “mean girls” because they tended to be manipulative.
“If you’re calm, you can be strategic and planned in your aggression,” said lead researcher Jamie Abaied, a UVM assistant professor of psychological science. “You can really use your aggression to control your relationship and stay dominant over your peers.”
Previous studies have revealed the connection between controlling parents and their children’s relational aggression, but this new research shows how those effects extend into college.