Girl Bullying

Relational bullying or “relational aggression” was included in the definition of bullying in the 1990’s, mainly through the research and persistence of Professor Nicki Crick. Relational bullying is when a student uses relational influence to turn other students against someone and ultimately to isolate them. In the early grades this behavior takes the form of telling another student directly that they cannot play or join in. In the middle grades relational bullying takes a more indirect form of manipulating students against other students behind their backs. While boys tend to physical and verbal bullying, girls tend more to indirect and relational bullying. Many schools experience relational bullying as the most difficult form of bullying to address. As one principal told No Bully, “It’s easier to control physical bullying because we can see it.”

The way that students bully is shaped by gender, class and ethnicity. Relational bullying is most prevalent among middle class girls, where high value is placed on being “nice” i.e. being non-aggressive and avoiding direct confrontation. White middle class girls are especially prone to respond to conflict with avoidant and passive-aggressive behaviors, while maintaining a façade of niceness. Contrast that with inner city schools where wel find that girls use high levels of direct verbal and even physical aggression, but engage in fewer behind-the-back relational attacks.

The challenge for schools is how to help girls navigate the usual ups and downs of friendships without resorting to passive aggression. Implement a program each year for your fourth/fifth/sixth graders (these are the key years of early adolecence) that will;

•    Get them thinking about what makes a good friend and how to keep a friend. Teaching modules should ask girls what qualities they value in their friends, what makes a girl popular and why their friends like them. Mary Baird, director of the Ophelia project, tells girls that she has a beautiful necklace and asks them how they imagine that she takes care of it. The girls make guesses such as: take it off at night so it won’t get broken; treat it gently. Baird uses their replies to make the point that they have to take care of friendships in the same way.

•    Teach girls how to avoid conflicts over boys. Girls need to figure out how to respect their girl friendships while finding boy friends e.g. whether it is acceptable to go out with a friend’s boyfriend or what to do when that boy flirts with them.

•    Present girls with typical scenarios around relational bullying and have discussions about what to do when you are the target of bullying or a bystander.

•    Teach how to solve the inevitable problems with their peers, so that the normal frustrations of friendship don’t have explosive consequences. They need to learn assertive versus aggressive (or passive) behavior. Girls need help in understanding how they respond when feeling angry and how passive aggression affects those around them. Often these skills are taught as part of a conflict resolution program.

•    Spell out what behaviors are expected of students. These behaviors need to be significantly elaborated for students in the middle school years. Schools also need to increase the number of team building and co-operative learning activities that they provide to their middle school students.

•    Girls that are isolated need to be connected to resources where they feel wanted and of value e.g. Girl Circles, Girl Scouts, Volunteens, Boys and Girls Clubs of America. See if Club or Camp Ophelia is offered in your neighborhood.

Schools need to partner with parents to mediate some of the more negative cultural pressures on their daughters. All parents of adolescent girls should read Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls by Mary Pipher. Schools are successfully partnering with mothers of girls in the fourth, fifth and sixth grades around cliques, conflict and relational bullying. Parents need to understand the different social challenges and “tasks” set to their children by each developmental stage. They need to understand the intense need of girls, especially in middle school, to have a best friend. Mothers of Queen Bees need to get past their denial that there is a problem, easier said than done when their daughters are popular and secure in their group of friends. Mothers of targets have to learn not to downplay how painful things are for their daughters. Schools are using the facilitator guides put out by Girls Circle to run mother-daughter groups and bringing in speakers to wake parents up to the gravity of relational bullying.