My first-grader came home in tears the other day. I was bracing for some horrific injury but it turned out her friends were giving her the silent treatment and didn’t want to play with her.
What seemed like trivial girlhood drama to me felt like the end of the world to her. The next day, all was forgotten and they were back to being BFFs. Then it happened again, and again — this time with name-calling and note-passing.
At first, I dismissed these schoolyard episodes as random pre-tween growing pains. But educators, counselors and girls young and old say this type of on-again, off-again, “mean girl” behavior, while not acceptable, is part of everyday life in elementary, middle, high school and even some colleges across the country.
Young girls today find it more and more difficult to navigate the choppy waters of adolescence and are turning to social or relational aggression — aka, name-calling, rumor mongering, shunning and bullying — to win friendships and popularity. This type of psychological warfare is being waged by girls as young as preschool age and often escalates as they get older. Mean girl behavior is so prevalent today that it frequently makes newspaper and magazine headlines, and has been the subject of dozens of best-selling books, television shows and even a Hollywood movie, Mean Girls, starring Lindsay Lohan.
“It’s not an epidemic but it’s something we deal with constantly,” says Sandy Smelser, a counselor at Cascade View Elementary School in Snoqualmie. In her 39 years as a teacher and school counselor, Smelser says the “mean girl” phenomenon is becoming more prevalent and showing up at younger ages. Typical “relational aggression” can be as innocuous as deciding who gets to sit next to whom during lunch, not inviting so-and-so to a birthday party, gossiping or shifting alliances.
In teenage girls, verbal cat fights can escalate into physical aggression — outright campus brawls, as happened last year in New York when three girls were arrested after kicking, punching and pulling the hair of their 13-year-old classmate, then posting it on MySpace.com.
At its worst, smoldering tensions between girls can flare up in online chat rooms and end up deadly. Such was the case in 2006 when a 13-year-old Missouri girl committed suicide after a cruel cyber hoax involving the mother of one of her friends.
It’s not uncommon for young girls to be sensitive and have anxiety problems in school, but Smelser says that for many, when they are bullied, the emotional trauma can be overwhelming. “The whole mean girl thing is about girl-style bullying with the need for power at its base. There’s no magic wand . . . the struggle for power is so ingrained in our current world, it’s hard to work against that. But you just have to keep at it.”
In the book, Girlfighting: Betrayal & Rejection Among Girls, author Lyn Mikel Brown blames reality TV, soap operas and sitcoms for glorifying women and girls who thrive on competition and nastiness. She argues that the old adage “girls will be girls” — gossipy, competitive, cliquish, backstabbing — and the idea that fighting is part of a developmental stage or a rite-of-passage, are not acceptable explanations. Instead, she asserts girls are pressured to fulfill unrealistic expectations to be popular, and struggle to find their way in a society that still reinforces gender stereotypes and places greater value on boys.
The good news is that through school programs, nonprofit organizations, professional workshops and books, there are plenty of resources to combat the problem. In the Puget Sound area alone, there are several organizations devoted to improving girls’ self-esteem and giving them tools to make the difficult transition from childhood to adolescence:
Elementary, middle and high schools throughout Washington also have in-school and after-school programs devoted to inspiring courage in girls. At Cascade View, for example, Smelser frequently visits her classrooms to teach social skills. Occasionally, she and her colleague, Natalie Watters, divide the girls and boys so one of them can work exclusively with girls. They emphasize healthy friendship rules, particularly in second- and third-grade classrooms where the girls design their own Friendship Rules book (see side bar previous page).
To reinforce the lessons, Smelser has the girls take ownership of their favorite rule and share it in their friendship circle. In addition, groups of fourth- and fifth-grade students present puppet shows to the younger girls to illustrate healthy friendship skills. “The point is to teach the younger girls, and at the same time, the older girls get to reinforce their own friendship skills. We want them to be role models.”
Fifth-graders Cerese and Cassidy recently used a stuffed rat, caterpillar and a crocodile to act out a scene in which the rat was excluding others from joining in a classroom game. “I tell the girls to be loyal to their friends and don’t be bossy,” says 11-year-old Cassidy.
Both girls say that doing the puppet shows helps them in their own struggles at school. Cerese recently moved to the Snoqualmie school from a private school in Bothell, and says the adjustment has not been easy. As a newer student, Cerese has found it difficult to fit into well-established groups. Sometimes feeling left out, she uses the “killing them with kindness” strategy to help her make friends with girls who might have hesitated to let her join their group.
Fickle friendships, “switching alliances,” being left out and bullying make up the majority of what Peggy Rubens sees on a daily basis. A longtime counselor in the Highline School District and founder of Creative Crossings, Rubens says the transition from childhood to adolescence is a difficult time for young girls and puts their self-esteem at risk. “Their strong need to fit in with friends and be independent can compete with their need for their parents’ guidance and boundaries.”
Instead of scolding girls who are mean, Rubens tries to empower them. One of her favorite ways to do this is through a strategy of “changing the language of hate.” She teaches girls to use the phrase: “Connect, Disconnect and Reconnect.” “Hate doesn’t correctly indicate what’s really going on with these girls,” Rubens says. “More often, it’s frustration they are dealing with.”
To help girls visualize the on-again, off-again patterns of friendships, Rubens asks them to draw roller coasters, illustrating the points of connection (when the relationship is riding high) and disconnection (when the friendship deteriorates and the ride descends rapidly and comes to a screeching halt). “These roller-coaster friendships are very, very stressful,” Rubens says. “That visual is very powerful for girls because they start to see they aren’t alone.”
While physical fights are easy to spot, experts say the more subtle social aggression is sometimes overlooked by parents, educators and even counselors. “A lot of people think this is age-appropriate or normal behavior,” Rubens says. “If educators don’t intervene, they condone the behavior, putting the healthy social development of girls at risk.”
She says it’s important for parents and educators to walk a fine line between listening, supporting, and giving ideas as to how to handle the situation, while at the same time letting the girls own their own problems. “In other words, don’t call the other family, don’t threaten the child, don’t let your own hurt feelings rule. Although this may be your natural response, it is usually not helpful and often makes the situation worse.”
Rubens learned at an early age that girls are not always sugar and spice and everything nice. As a sixth-grader, she was both the aggressor and the victim. “I was in the popular group and we always had someone we were mean to. It’s just what we did,” Rubens recalls. “One day, I started to realize I was the odd girl out.” She soon became the victim of exclusion, gossip and taunting from her classmates. She recalls one day hearing about her friend’s birthday party but not being invited to it. “When I got back to school and found out about the party, none of my friends would talk to me. It was a very hard time. I felt like a total loser.”
Rubens experienced what many girls go through today when their friends suddenly, for no reason, stop talking to them. “It damages their self-esteem and makes girls feel like it must be something they did. They start to doubt themselves.”
When she was in school, Rubens says she didn’t have the benefit of a school counselor to ease the tensions. Those painful years motivated her to eventually become a school counselor and more recently to start Creative Crossings, where she combines educational curriculum with arts, movement and role-playing. “I wanted to be able to help girls have resources to draw from.”
With a master’s degree from Seattle Pacific University in K-12 guidance counseling, Rubens is often called upon by school districts to lead assertiveness training workshops or just to assist girls in their school community. Through her workshops, seminars and her blog, Rubens urges parents to “create a safe place at home” for their daughters to enjoy family life away from their friends. “This may be your daughter’s sanctuary when the rest of her life isn’t feeling so great,” she says. “This may include time spent alone with your daughter, NOT talking about friends.” She also warns parents to watch out for their own use of relational aggression. “Your daughter is listening to you.”
Ruben advises parents to remember that there are two sides to every story. Relational aggression is often a little more two-sided than it initially appears, so be open to the fact that your child may be less innocent than you think. Remember that all the girls are learning about relationships and that there is a lot of pressure on girls to make hurtful choices. If your child makes a poor choice, use it as a learning tool.
She also suggests using as many resources as possible to help your daughter find more positive, empowering outlets, such as helping others, volunteering, or engaging in activities for girls such as those offered by Passages Northwest, Powerful Voices, Girls on the Run and Creative Crossings.
And remember that it isn’t acceptable for a school to say, “That’s just how girls are.” Relational aggression is a form of bullying and schools have to address both bullying and harassment incidents. However, often it is difficult to figure out what is really going on with relational aggression because it is so covert. Don’t blame the school, but get the staff on board and work with them as allies. School counselors can work wonders in helping to ease the tension. While Rubens spends much of her time with girls who are struggling, she says it’s rewarding to see girls thrive. “Despite the challenges in friendships, there are many avenues for girls to be empowered.”
1. Think Before You Speak: Is it nice? Is it necessary? Is it true?
BOOKS OFFER ROAD MAP THROUGH ADOLESCENCE
Making the transition from little girl to young woman can be an unsettling and difficult journey — full of potholes, wrong turns and confusing signs. Here are some noteworthy books to help you, your daughters, students and friends along the way.
Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls by Rachel Simmons (Harcourt, 2002). After interviewing more than 300 girls across the country, Simmons concludes that behind-the-scenes aggression is “epidemic” among adolescent girls, especially ages 10–14. She writes that girls lack cultural permission to deal with conflict so they develop “a hidden culture of silent and indirect aggression.”
Queen Bees & Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence by Rosalind Wiseman (Three Rivers Press, 2002). Aimed at parents, Wiseman provides a guide to navigating the adolescent landscape. She acts as a liaison between “Girl World” and “Planet Parent.” She also is cofounder of a Washington, D.C.-based violence-prevention program called Empower. Queen Bees was the inspiration for the 2004 movie, Mean Girls.
Please Stop Laughing At Me: One Woman’s Inspirational Story by Jodee Blanco (Adams Media, 2003). A publicist, Blanco tells the story of growing up being tormented by her schoolmates. She writes that her parents were sympathetic, but they made things worse by forcing her to see a therapist who prescribed medication and told her that “kids will be kids.”
Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls by Mary Pipher (Ballantine Books, 1995). More than two decades after being published, this book is still the “go-to” guide to adolescence for many educators. Pipher, a clinical psychologist, argues that today’s teenage girls are coming of age in “a girl-poisoning culture.” Backed by anecdotal evidence and research findings, she suggests that despite the advances of feminism, young women continue to be victims of abuse, self-mutilation (through eating disorders), consumerism and media pressure to conform to others’ ideals.
Girlfighting: Betrayal & Rejection Among Girls by Lyn Mikel Brown (NYU Press, 2005). Brown, a psychologist and educator, illustrates how American culture nurtures meanness in girls.
FOR YOUNG READERS
My Secret Bully by Trudy Ludwig (Tricycle Press, 2005). Geared toward girls ages 4–8, Ludwig tells the story of Monica and Katie, who have been friends since kindergarten. But Katie increasingly excludes and embarrasses her friend in front of their classmates. Monica’s despair and isolation are portrayed and highlights girlhood aggression.
Our Friendship Rules by Peggy Moss and Dee Dee Tardiff (Tilbury House Publishers, 2007). A Moonbeam children’s book award winner, this book is a story of forgiveness and a simple, sweet tale of how to get along. For ages 4–8.
Friends: Making Them & Keeping Them by Patti Kelley Criswell and Stacy Peterson (American Girl Publishing Inc., 2006). For ages 9–12, this interactive book is full of advice on making new friends and making the most of existing friendships.
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