Mean girls

Some of us can look back on friendships we made on the very first day of school and find they may well be friends, even today. But maybe we have other memories – painful ones of being shunted out of a group or excluded in some way. Many girls are into cliques from their first days at school. They move in and out of groups all through their school lives and, for some of us, it may still be happening.

The Ministry of Youth Development 2007 Youth Connectedness study shows that most young people enjoy good friendships. The vast majority (89.1 percent) reported that they and their friends helped each other out. 71 percent reported that people could almost always be trusted, with just 7 percent having been burnt so badly they almost never trusted people. But that rosy picture is not true for everyone. The survey was of 15 to 24 year olds. Had they surveyed pre-teens and younger teenagers, especially girls, I am sure that they would have found a bleaker picture.

Both boys and girls form same-sex gangs or groups. Boys can be cruel to those outside of their group, but girls tend to be cruel to those inside their group. It is sometimes called relational aggression, a cattiness that cats would be ashamed of. Typically, one person will campaign to get the entire group to join forces against one individual. Some girls are perennial victims and drift to the ‘social edge’, but more often than not, the prey remains desperate to be liked, tantalised by the lure of friendship, totally subservient to the power of the group (especially to the key manipulators within it) and, when they are readmitted into the group, can be ferocious predators themselves.

So how does this start? Why does it seem to happen more to some girls and not others? And, most importantly, how do we help our girls figure out their way through all this and emerge intact, healthy and fabulous at the other end?

Personality and social skills largely determine how a girl ‘fits in’ when she starts school. Extroverts will have no trouble bowling up to others and just joining in, whereas shyer introverts may hang back and wait to be invited. Some are ‘observers’ who bide their time to see where they will fit most comfortably. Some girls have ‘lion’ personalities – natural leaders who take over the alpha role in the group, while the ‘golden retriever’ girls will take up the peacemaker role in the group – smoothing things over, looking after others and making sure everyone is okay.

The need to join or form groups is a normal part of childhood development and it peaks in the pre-teen years. Their source of security and confidence shifts – for younger girls, it is based on their growing abilities and skills, but, as they get older, they become much more concerned about developing their identity and a sense of how they appear to others. Group acceptance is their number one value. This provides fertile ground for bullying to flourish.

Of course, bullies look for targets who are weaker and smaller and less confident than they are, but the main qualification for getting picked on is just being different in some way – looks, race, culture, size, whatever. In her book, The Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander, Barbara Coloroso says, “There are three kinds of bullying – verbal, physical and relational. Boys and girls use verbal bullying equally. Boys tend to use physical bullying more often than girls do, and girls use relational bullying more often than boys.” Relational bullying includes social isolation, exclusion, spreading rumours and gossiping. She believes that, at its heart, bullying is “arrogance in action” and provocatively asserts that it has usually been taught – family culture, school culture and the example of peers and siblings has a huge impact on whether a child is a bully or not. It is almost certain that our children will be bullied at some stage, but how they respond determines whether they remain a victim or not.

One of the sad things about victims of bullying is that these kids often feel it is their fault. They are too ashamed to ask for help and don’t believe that anything can be done about the bully. They certainly don’t feel as though they have the power to do anything about it. When these kids get the idea that it is the bully who has the problem, not them, and that they can stand their ground, change their body language and tell someone to back off, it comes as a revelation to them. When they try it successfully and see the bully speechless, it’s life-changing for them.

I remember working with one gorgeous but quiet 11-year-old girl at school who was so affected by a bully she no longer wanted to come to school. Her mother referred her to me in my role as school counsellor. We worked through a range of strategies. We made a list of what the bully was actually doing. We made a list of the victim’s strengths, abilities and friends. We role played victim body language and confident body language and made a list of all the things this girl could do or say to deal with the bully. The light really came on when we talked about who was the one with the problem – the bully! Her head came up and her shoulders went back. This girl, and many others like her, was quick to take on the idea that the bullying was her fault, that there was something wrong with her when, in fact, it was the opposite. The bully is the one who has the problem. The next time I saw that girl, there was a smile on her face.

Phones, texting and the internet have hugely expanded a girl’s social world. It makes sense that our pre-teens and teens will extend their search for identity and belonging using whatever technology is available. They are great ways to connect and talk, but it also increases their exposure to bullying – one out of every five New Zealand high school students reported experiencing ‘cyberbullying’ in a Netsafe survey. It is so easy, and so much less scary, to say insulting or embarrassing things about someone via technology. Once the ‘send’ button has been clicked, there’s no taking it back. The ease and speed with which it can be done couples with the well-known impulsiveness of young teens – the area of their brains responsible for thinking clearly about cause and effect, and controlling impulsivity, is still under construction!

Parents need to coach girls – both about what is permissible in the use of their phones and the internet, and also what to do if they get rude or bullying texts. The same general resilience-enhancing strategies that work in the playground also work in cyberspace. How do we help our girls find their way through this stuff? There’s a lot we can do. The key skills and resources are –

Resilience

The temptation is to not just hear an insult but to own it. An insult will always sting, but we can help our girls to see it for what it really is, and not to keep replaying the damning message over and over in their head. Knowing your true strengths, and being able to brush off insults quickly, are vital skills in the rough-and-tumble world of girls.

Empathy

Someone who can identify with others and have ‘fellow-feeling’ will, most likely, develop great friendships and seldom stoop to bullying others. Frequently cue them to use their imagination to feel what others feel.

Insights into bullying

They will withstand name-calling far better knowing it’s more about the other person than them. Bullies almost universally do it to bolster their own low self-esteem. Another insight is that people who tease often have very little understanding of how much pain or embarrassment they cause. Not many are truly sadistic – they do it for the admiration and laughter of the onlookers, and not from a desire to see the victim’s pain. These insights will also help girls resist the temptation to become bullies themselves, especially when they see it as a weakness, a character flaw, and a strategy that ultimately backfires on the bully.

Heroic leadership

Bullies dominate with venom and insults, but it is no match to someone who leads with genuine kindness. Will they support their friends if someone is being unkind? Can they respectfully but firmly challenge someone who is being unkind to them or their friends? Bystanders can have a powerful effect on bullies. It takes incredible courage to defend an unpopular kid against a bully, but it can have a huge and lasting impact on a playground culture.

Social skills

Do they have the phrases they can use to defuse anger and deflect teasing with humour? Do they have the courage to turn their back on an abusive group, and the skills to move to another group that is more to their liking? We can coach them to be able to get out of tricky situations graciously but firmly. For example, “If my parents find out, I’ll be grounded” or, “I’m not into that”. Give them phrases and strategies to stand up for their friends and get help. Role play confident body language and facial expressions. Practising in front of a mirror is great.

Back up

Assure your girl that you are totally on-side with them. Some kids pick up implicit criticism when they confide in their parents that they are being picked on, reinforcing the ideas that it is a weak and shameful thing to be bullied. Give emotional support and strategies, but don’t be too quick to step in and intervene, especially in confronting the bullies directly. Teachers and all adults should be there to protect children – let your children know that it is perfectly acceptable to call on them if they are having problems.

A home base

We can make sure that home is a positive, fun oasis, where love is unconditional and family connections are strong. Be your girls’ greatest fans! Home is where girls can practise respectful leadership by taking turns being the ‘leader of the week’ amongst her siblings. They can practise firm boundaries by learning how to politely but firmly say, “No” or, “I don’t like it when you do that to me” or, “Back off!” Teach problem-solving skills – how to think through situations, recognise their part in them and figure out solutions or options. We need to congratulate them when we see them using these skills.

As parents, we can be modelling positive, respectful friendships within the home and with our adult friends. We need to be vigilant in tackling any bullying that happens at home – between kids or adults. Of course kids will tease each other, but monitor it and enforce limits. When teasing becomes hurtful, when play-fighting stops being fun, whenever there is hitting, yelling or punching, then we need to step in. Also be on the look-out for emotional manipulation and the mind games girls see modelled in their groups – you may need to rescue your boys from their sister!

Our girls need to know they can talk to us about anything without us hitting the roof or reacting fearfully. Anxiety can be catching – kids pick up defeated or hopeless attitudes from us. We need to be confident in our own abilities to handle tricky situations and difficult people, and pass this onto our kids. If our kids come to us with tricky problems, it is fine to say, “Hmm, that’s tough. Let me think about that and I’ll come back to you with some ideas.” We need to be available to debrief regularly – talking out a problem with an empathetic adult helps girls to get into the ‘emotional space’ where they can think things through and work out what they can do about it.

There are all sorts of things you may have to do. For example, checking their phones or internet use, talking to their teachers or stopping them hanging out with particular people – and none of those moves will be very popular with your girls. But children tend to accept our intervention more readily when they understand that it is our role to keep them safe. Always give them your reasons for acting – that it is your love for them and concern for their wellbeing that is behind it. They know we are their parents, and usually forgive us when we have to act like one! We may need to be very careful in our tone, acknowledging that we know this could be difficult for them but that we have confidence that they’ll be able to handle it.

A key strategy to help your girls handle the dynamics of the groups they are in is to ‘dilute’ the importance of those groups by adding other groups to her world. We can encourage our girls to be part of several groups of friends. For example, out of school at a sport, club or youth group. Then, all her need for acceptance is not hinging on one group. It can be incredibly comforting to a girl, if she is excluded or bullied in one group, to have a completely separate social circle where she is accepted and appreciated, and where the bullies (and the witnesses to the bullying) are absent.

Bullying should not be tolerated. If it is happening in school, then make an appointment and speak to her teacher. If your daughter is receiving abusive texts or being ‘flamed’ on the internet, schools, internet providers and even the police will take your complaint very seriously. If you don’t get a satisfactory response, then ask to speak with a dean or principal. School counsellors can be very useful in formulating good strategies.

Bullying and relational aggression can be a mild annoyance or it can become a huge source of distress that can tip a girl into genuine depression. So what do we need to watch out for? These are some warning signs that indicate cause for concern:

  • Change in mood that last longer than a couple of weeks
  • Changes in eating, sleeping or activities previously enjoyed
  • Physical symptoms occurring regularly, for example – headaches, stomach aches, nausea

If we notice these we can make use of the following resources:

  • Kidsline – free phone counselling for 9 to 13 year olds – kidsline.org.nz
  • Whatsup – free phone counselling for 5 to 18 year olds – whatsup.co.nz
  • School guidance counsellors
  • GPs for mental health assessment and referral to an appropriate agency or professional, if needed
  • Self-development programmes – for example, Youthline – youthline.co.nz, Spirit of New Zealand – spiritofadventure.org.nz
  • Police ‘no bully’ website – https://www.police.govt.nz/service/yes/nobully/
  • The Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander by Barbara Coloroso
  • Bully Blocking: Six Secrets to Help Children by Evelyn Field
  • Attitude books – available from theparentingplace.com
  • Skylight – skylight.org.nz – great resources for children and parents regarding a range of issues

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About Author

Jenny Jackson

Jenny is one of our Family Coaches. Jenny has worked as a family therapist with children and young people with severe and challenging behaviours and their families. She is skilled in getting alongside parents of teens to offer strategies and solutions that strengthen family connections and positively impact the atmosphere of the family. Jenny is committed to encouraging parents to be intentional, confident and to have fun in their parenting.

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