Steps to reduce female cruelty and relational aggression and raise compassionate, respectful girls
Forget “sugar and spice and everything nice.” Research too often shows a different picture with all too many of our daughters.
“Vicious, mean, calculating and backstabbing” are more applicable descriptions.
Psychologists call such hurtful behavior “Relational Aggression” or RA because the goal is to damage the victim’s social standing or reputation by intentionally manipulating how others view her.
The methods of RA are always cold and calculated: deliberately isolating or excluding the victim, spreading vicious rumors or posting scandalous lies online, or creating situations to publicly humiliate her.
Make no mistake, relational aggression is every bit as damaging as physical abuse to a victim. So it should be no surprise that research also shows that RA is linked to low self-esteem, intense sadness, heightened anxiety, fear of other people, anger, eating disorders, social withdrawal and loneliness. It also lowers grades and academic performance and increases a girl’s risk for depression and in extreme cases, suicide.
Data shows that mean-girl bullying behavior is a quickly growing trend that knows no boundaries.
Rural or urban, rich or poor –our “New American Girl” is becoming crueler and most especially during those tween years. But even most disturbing: mean behavior is starting at younger ages! Every group of educators and parents I’ve worked with voice their concern about the newer and meaner girl scene.
Three Steps to Stop Girl Cruelty
So what’s a parent or educator to do? As much as we’d like to just will this problem away, the girl aggression problem is alive and well. It’s time we take this issue seriously. Here are three steps parents and educators can take to stop the girl cruelty and raise emotionally-healthy, caring, strong young women.
STEP 1: Get Educated About a Girl’s Kind of Mean
The first step to turning this troubling trend around is awareness. Simply put: you must get educated about the new Mean Girl Scene, what it looks like by age and stage, and the most common types of relational aggression.
Relational aggression begins in earnest around third and fourth grade and is at its peak around those middle school years. The latest research shows that girls, as young as four, are bullying, threatening, and shunning out other girls from playgroups.
While younger girls use more overt mean exclusion tactics (“You can’t play,” or “I don’t want you here,” or even “Don’t let her into our game!”), older girls are more prone to use the ‘under the radar backstabbing approach’ to inflict pain.
Methods for older girls are more covert such as spreading vicious rumors or scandalous gossip, lies and rumors, threatening to withdraw friendship, deliberately excluding another girl, manipulating affection of friendship, building alliances to exclude others, using betrayal or the “silent treatment” or other indirect means for revenge. And it can also involve using physical threats or extortion.
Law enforcement warns that the Mean Girl scene is getting physical.
We’re also seeing an increase in physical aggression amongst the older girl scene.
The pink gender is also more likely to send cruel rumors or crude comments via email, text, or IMing. And that’s exactly why cyber-bullying is the perfect delivery system for relational aggression: it’s anonymous, vicious, viral and effective in spreading hurt and damaging reputations.
Sexting is the newest trend- sending photo images of girls in compromising situations electronically.
STEP 2: Know Signs of the “Mean Girl Scene”
The signs of relational aggression are often tougher for parents and teachers to spot than traditional bullying. One reason is because there are usually no physical scrapes, bruises, torn clothing, or lost items that are typical with physical or sexual-type bullying. And then there’s another reason: your daughter may not tell you that she is a victim of the mean girl set which is exactly why you must learn the warnings.
Studies show that the older the girl, the less likely she will divulge her troubling experience with the mean social scene to an adult. And the top reason: Girls say silent suffering is often much easier than admitting to peer humiliation.
Many girls always admit that they did “tell” a parent, teacher or other caregiver and even pointedly ask for help, but they were only to have their “tale” dismissed as trivial, an exaggeration or just plain untrue.
“Why bother,” many a girl told me. “No one listened.”
“It’s just easier to stay quiet,” others said.
“It would be far worse if the girls found out I snitched on them. My life would be a living hell.”
As a result many girls never receive the emotional help they so desperately need. Don’t wait for your daughter to come to you. She may not. Instead, look for certain signs of RA in your daughter or in her friends. Here are a few behaviors that could be signs of RL.
Of course, there could be a number of other reasons for such behaviors, but any one should be a parent red flag that something is wrong and warrant a closer look. Don’t overlook that relational aggression could be a possible cause.
Signs A Girl May Be a “Mean Girl” Victim
She is “picked on,” shunned, or excluded often. Every girl will be picked on or left out, but if you hear this complaint more than a few times take your daughter seriously. Bullying is a usually a repeated behavior that always has a negative intent. Once a girl becomes a target, she often is repeatedly targeted. Watch for a repeated pattern.
She displays a pattern of wishy-washy, on-and-off again “friendships.” She seems to be friends with one girl one week and then “hates” her the next week. Or she’s “best friends” with one girl one day and then quickly becomes best friends with another girl another day.
She speaks negatively about certain girls or a certain group of girls or clique. This could be the same group of girls that she once considered to be good friends. Tune in a bit closer. It could be a sign that relational aggression is happening in your child’s class or group.
She has a sudden marked and uncharacteristic change in mood. The girl may seems sadder or even depressed or more irritable or angry and those changes seems to come on when she comes home from school, during the weekends (when she may be “uninvited”) or after a phone call, email or text-message.
She suddenly withdraws. She starts pulling away from things she once enjoyed. She is lonely.
She doesn’t speak of having any friends. No one calls, texts, emails or invites her over (not for one day or one weekend but as a general pattern). Remember, popularity is a myth. Girls don’t need lots of friends, but they do need one or two loyal buddies. The red flag here is if your daughter has no friends, or had friends and suddenly “lost” them.
She suddenly avoids certain social situations. She doesn’t want to go to school or take part in the scouting, church group, soccer club, 4-H or other group activities she once enjoyed.
She seems jittery, concerned or even afraid when an email, text, message, or phone call comes for her. She may quickly cover up the computer screen or refuse to answer a text or personal call. It may mean she is the victim of cyberbullying or fears that vicious electronic gossip or photos are being circulated about her.
She has a sudden change in her eating or sleep habits. She suddenly complains of stomach or headaches or the inability to focus or concentrate. She can’t sleep or sleeps much longer. Her grades take a dip.
She starts to speak about girls in a mean way. She adopts the attitude and behavior of a mean girl. Beware: victims can switch and become the bully if not helped.
Watch for downslide. If you think your daughter is really having a hard time, be available. Schedule a few weekends together. Take her to the gym with you. Take her to lunch. If things get really tough, consider seeking professional help.
STEP 3: Get Proactive and Stop the Cruelty
The final step is for parents and educators to squelch this mean girl scene. Yes, cliques have always existed. You’re right, girls have always been a bit catty (hmmm), but this goes way beyond cattiness: This is cold-blooded cruelty. Don’t expect overnight success, and do try different approaches. The goal is to raise strong, confident, and respectful young women. So open up the dialogue: Talk to your daughter. Get on board with other moms. Hold discussions at your school. Bring in speakers. Do what it takes, but start talking about the mean girl scene.
Here are ideas that other communities, teachers, counselors and parents are doing to end the girl wars and cease the cruelty.
Teach conflict solving
Teach your daughter how to solve problems and strategies for conflict resolution, but don’t expect overnight miracles. Learning any skill takes practice, so look for real life opportunities to practice the skill in then practice over and over.
Forty-five percent of middle school students have conflicts one or more times each day and 80 percent said they see kids having arguments.
A great resource is Girl Wars: 12 Strategies That Will End Female Bullying, by Cheryl Dellasega and Charisse Nixon.
Start with one ally
For a girl who is rejected and left out, one friend can be your child’s social entry card. Tell your daughter to not to aim at first for the whole group but start with just a one to one relationship with someone already there.
Be on the alert for girls who share the same interests as your daughter. Older girls are more likely to choose friends based on similar interests or values. If your daughter likes tennis, then sign her up for the tennis classes. If she enjoys drawing, then go for drawing classes.
Point her in a different direction
If your child rebuffed by one group, encourage her to try another that may be more appropriate. Sociological studies have revealed an amazing number of different cliques and groups on a typical high school campus including everything from athletes to geeks and arty-types.
Appeal to your daughter’s caring side or nurture it if it lies dormant. Get on board with another mom and daughter and find a service project you can do together. The best way to cultivate heart is by doing real and caring experiences.
Don’t push too hard on being popular
Some parents overemphasize the need to be good looking, be in with the “in” group. Halt the comments about appearance and popularity. They do not help your daughter.
In fact a recent University of California Davis study found that the “quest to be popular” (or at least “maintain rank”) is fuels bullying at the middle school level. The “second tier” (not most popular…but the second level) children are more likely to bully and a prime reason is insecurity in their position – fearing they will be bumped off the “friendship ladder.”
Help her manage frustrations
The mean girl scene can be a big stressor. And rejection can be very traumatic so offer your daughter healthy outlets and strategies for coping. Suggest she keep a journal, talk to a mentor, express herself in her favorite creative way such as through music, painting, or drawing. Many girls say that yoga is a great help in reducing their stress. Find her a healthy outlet!
Start a book club with your daughter
A great idea came from the principal of Hilltop Academy inWashington who was concerned about the sixth grade “Mean Girl Scene.” She asked a couple of the school’s key Queen Bees if they would like to start a book club with a few other girls.
“Sure!” the girl said.
The principal chose Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, by Rachel J. Simmons (Love it! Love it!). Once the girls started to read and discuss the book (under the guidance of a fabulous principal), they recognized their own behavior and suddenly their mean streak stopped.
Why not set up a book club with a few moms and daughters?
My other favorites is Queen Bees & Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence, by Rosalind Wiseman.
The Mother-Daughter Project is another fabulous resource to get you started about ways to start mother-daughter book clubs.
I know those preteen and teen years can be tough on a parent’s ego, but a big mistake is stepping back from our daughter’s lives. Don’t! Find ways to stay connected and get into her life. Granted, it may take a bit of creativity, but think! If your daughter is leaning more towards her peers, why not get a few of her friend’s mothers on board? Start a mother-daughter yoga class or exercise as a group. Watch Friends or Mean Girl with her. Read and discuss the Twight series because she loves it. Or do what one mom told me she did: read Teen People so you can get into her zone.
Foster her strengths and passions
Find that spark in your daughter and help nurture her passions, capabilities, and healthy interests. Yoga, horseback riding, drawing, basketball, writing, cooking: what turns your daughter on? Tailor your parenting towards her natural nature so she has permission to be herself. Let her know you love her for who she really is—not for what you hope she will become. Doing so is one of the best ways to nurture strong identity and self-worth.
Find positive, female role models
Let’s offer our daughters female role models who feel comfortable in their own skin (and don’t need to rely on Botox, breast implants, dieting, and designer labels to feel attractive). What about J.R. Rowling, Michelle Wei, Anne Hathaway, Great Aunt Harriet or even the neighbor lady next door? Expose your daughter to authentic, confident women, and then tell her why you admire them. Our girls need strong, resourceful female examples to emulate. Enough of Paris, Lindsay and Britney!
Be the example you want your daughter to copy
Ask yourself one question each night: “If my daughter had only my behavior to watch today what would she have caught?”
What is your example: Independence or dependence? Confidence or insecurity? Respect or cattiness?
Be mindful of your influence. You do matter.
Also watch how you interact with your girlfriends.
Listen to how you talk about those celebrities.
Model what you want your daughter to become.
Expect your daughter to be kind
Don’t let your child buckle into the cruel mentality of the other girls.
Talk to her about why those girls act they way they do. Mobilize her empathy. Tell her that a “Cool to be Cruel” craze has caught on.
But also be clear that there can be no excuses: you expect her to be respectful and to find others who share those values.
There are gloriously wonderful, kind-hearted respectful girls. Let’s not overlook those girls!
As much as we’d like to just will this problem away, the girl aggression problem is alive and well. The sad truth is the problem is only getting worse and is starting at younger ages.
It’s time we take this issue seriously. Let’s get together and stop the girl cruelty!
I am an educational psychologist, parenting expert, TODAY show contributor and author of 22 books including The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries. You can also refer to my daily blog, Dr. Borba’s Reality Check for ongoing parenting solutions and late-breaking news and research about child development.