Peter H Brown Clinical Psychologist

Psychology News & Resources

Teenage Girls and Bullying Part II: What does it Look Like & What Can We Do?

The friendships women experience in their youth are some of the closest they will have in their lifetime. While these relationships can provide girls with wonderful support and encouragement when they are growing up, they can also be a source of great tension. The importance that girls place on these friendships can lead them to either become distressed over a perceived lack of friends or to accept poor treatment from these ‘friends’. This article will examine the practice of bullying amongst girls.9780156027342-crop-325x325

Until relatively recently, little was written about the negative aspects of girls’ friendships. There appeared to be almost a reluctance to acknowledge that women could be responsible for inflicting pain on other women. The publication of Rachel Simmons‘ Odd Girl Out and Rosalind Wilson’s Queen Bees and Wannabes in 2002, generated discussion on the topic and with it a move towards recognising that girls participate in their own form of bullying.

Whereas bullying amongst boys tends to involve physical or verbal abuse, girls participate in quite different methods. They typically rely on exclusion or the threat of exclusion, creating and perpetuating rumours, non-verbal gestures such as facial expressions and the sabotaging of others’ relationships. Rachel Simmons proposes that girls use these strategies because in our society it is less socially acceptable for them to display physical aggression (1). Girls are expected to be nurturing, kind, quiet and nice to others. Physical aggression is seen as unfeminine. These social expectations result in girls’ aggression being channelled into non-physical, indirect forms.

Bullying occurs predominantly in late primary school or in the first years of secondary school (2). It appears that girls bully for a range of reasons. Some girls may themselves be the subject of bullying or abuse from others. In these cases, becoming a bully may provide them with a release for the emotions they are experiencing. It also provides them with an opportunity to feel powerful and in control. Other girls bully as a way of gaining or maintaining popularity, to relieve boredom, because they believe everyone does it or simply because they think it is fun.

Girls may learn bullying behaviours from their parents, older siblings as well as their peers. Such behaviours are also featured in the television shows, movies and magazines popular with this audience. For example, gossiping, backstabbing, spreading rumours or revealing someone’s secrets form many of the storylines in The O.C. and are actively encouraged in reality shows like Big Brother. If many of the female relationships that girls are presented include elements of bullying this type of behaviour becomes normalised, as just part of ‘being a girl’.

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There are two distinct targets of bullying amongst girls, the ‘outsider’ and a member of an immediate circle of friends. The ‘outsider’ is often perceived by her female peers as being different in some way. This difference may relate to a girl’s physical attributes, intellectual level, ethnicity, religious beliefs, sexual orientation or socio-economic background. She is generally ostracised by the vast majority of her peers with anyone wanting to be friends made aware that they will also become the subject of bullying. The ‘outsider’ may not just be shunned by people her own age but also by those younger or older than her. As a result she may feel incredibly isolated and alone. Her sense of self worth may become eroded to the extent that she contemplates suicide.

As the ‘outsider’s’ exclusion is so pronounced it is more likely to be recognised by teachers at school who may be able to address the situation to some degree. For example, if the behaviour toward the ‘outsider’ is racially motivated the teacher can reinforce with students the seriousness of making racist remarks. Unfortunately, teachers are not always skilled and/or supported to deal with bullying. Some may dismiss the experience of bullying as simply ‘part of growing up’. In some instances, the teacher may also perceive the ‘outsider’ to be different and participate in the bullying themselves to a degree.

The second target is the girl who is bullied within a circle of friends. Although she may not experience the complete isolation of the ‘outsider’ her experience of being bullied can also be emotionally damaging. The friendship group typically includes one girl in particular who has the majority of the power within the group. Her popularity may be due to attractiveness, wealth or sporting ability. One other member of the group is usually her best friend. The rest of the group consists of girls who want to be the friends of the most popular girl and her best friend. Their status in the group is often precarious, being completely dependent on the other two girls’ current opinion of them. Usually one or two of these girls is selected to be the current ‘favourites’. The remaining girls, therefore, are at risk of becoming the current target for bullying from the rest of the group.

In some cases, the popular girl is not directly involved in the bullying herself. Her power over the others in the group results in them carrying out the bullying on her behalf as a way of proving their loyalty to her. Often the cruelest behaviour comes from one of the girls chosen as a current favourite. As her position is only temporary (she has been the target in the past and will be in the future) she makes the most of her elevated status.

The bullying is often subtle and is largely based on the threat of exclusion from the group. The girl who is targeted may not be invited to social events or is given the silent treatment. Personal details she shared with the popular girls when she was a ‘favourite’ may be disclosed (eg. the name of a boy she likes) or rumours started about her. Her every behaviour, what she says, what she wears, is put under intense scrutiny with any faux pas taken as further evidence she should not really be in the group. The reason for her becoming the target is often not made obvious to her. Not being aware of what she has done leaves the girl scrutinising her own behaviour in an attempt to discover (and rectify) the wrongdoing.

The bullying is often done in a way that makes it difficult for the target to confront the other girls about it. For example, the rest of the group may offer to do her make-up for her before they attend a party. When they deliberately make her look unattractive it is hard for her to challenge them. If she suggests they have not done a good job they will disagree, trying to convince her she looks beautiful. Her complaints may also cause her to say she is ungrateful or ‘up herself’. As a result, the target may begin to question her own beliefs or outlook. She may think to herself, “Maybe the make-up isn’t really that bad”. If she refuses to attend the party she risks being excluded from the friendship group permanently. If she goes to the party she not only risks public humiliation but her compliance may be a further source of irritation to the other girls.

The more popular girls’ power relies on exclusive friendships. If the target has other friends, the threat of being 9780749924379-crop-325x325expelled from this particular friendship group will be less of a concern. To ensure their position of power the popular girls will often actively discourage any friendships outside the immediate friendship group. This might be achieved by ridiculing any activities a girl participates in that do not include members of the immediate group (ie. band, sporting team, part time work). Existing friendships may be deliberately sabotaged through the spread of gossip or rumours (eg. telling a girl’s outside friend/s that she said something negative about them). The result is limited opportunities for the girl to form other friendships (and therefore keeping them dependent on the immediate friendship group).

When a girl is the target of her friendship group’s bullying she will typically feel worried and anxious as well as alone. Having the people she admires and thinks of as her friends turn on her can be devastating. But why would someone tolerate this kind of behaviour towards them? It seems that for some girls belonging to a friendship group is of such importance they are willing to be part of a group that is damaging than not be in one at all (3). As the target of bullying within the group changes the girls can also choose to overlook the times they are bullied for those when they are a favourite.

The bullying that occurs within a circle of friends often goes unnoticed by both parents and teachers. Unlike with the ‘outsider’ where the girl’s aloneness often alerts people to a problem, the girl being bullied by those in an immediate friendship group appears to belong to a social group. For example, during lunch breaks and in class she has other girls she sits together with rather than being on her own. The alternation between being the target and being a chosen favourite also makes detection difficult.

Cyberbullying

Communicating via the internet or mobile phone plays an important role in young women’s lives. Unfortunately, these technology platforms are also being used in bullying. Cyberbullying includes the use of email, mobile phone, text messaging, instant messaging and websites to bully others (4). Cyberbullying is a concern as it increases the length of time the target can be bullied for. Previously, a girl might have been targeted during school but upon arriving home she found some relief. The use of technologies like text messaging and emails, however, means the bullying is extended way beyond the school gates. The ease with which one can set up an email address with an invented name or a website also provides the bullies with a greater degree of anonymity. This anonymity can result in the escalation of bullying as there is less chance they will be detected. The bully may set up a website containing false, derogatory information about the target and email others the site address. If the site has been created within Yahoo or the equivalent it may be difficult for the target to have it removed. For those being bullied, the use of a platform like a website is incredibly distressing as the scale of humiliation is potentially far greater-anyone in the world with internet access can view the site.

Technology also provides girls with an extremely effective method of exclusion. Whispers may have been used in the past, but exclusion can now take the form of sending a text message to everyone but the target or not sharing the password to an instant messaging group. As friendship groups typically communicate for considerable periods of time after school, the target can feel very left out and anxious about what is being discussed in her absence.

Short and long term consequences of bullying

Previously, bullying was often thought of as part of growing up, to be endured and even as something that was ‘character building’. Little sympathy tended to be given to those who were bullied. It is now recognised, however, that bullying is not an acceptable practice and that it can have both short and long term effects.

In the short term, bullying can seriously impact on a girl’s academic success. She may start to miss school in an effort to avoid the bullying that is occurring. When she attends it is difficult for her to focus adequately on her school work. A girl who is being bullied might develop physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach aches and nausea, which can all interfere with her learning capabilities. If academic achievement is one of the triggers for being bullied a girl may also deliberately under-achieve to fit in. In addition, choosing subjects based on what their friends are doing rather than what might be required for their desired career can seriously limit a girl’s potential.

The need to prove she is part of the group may lead to a girl’s participation in illegal activities such as under-age drinking, illicit drug taking, shoplifting or vandalism. She may also behave uncharacteristically, doing things she knows are irresponsible and that her parent/s have warned her about (eg. getting into a car driven by a drunk driver, going to a house when she doesn’t know the occupants).

In the long term, bullying can impact on the way girls perceive themselves and their relationships with others. Most obviously, girls who have experienced bullying have low self esteem and lack in confidence. They are also at higher risk of anxiety disorders, depression and self-harm (5). They may find it difficult to establish friendships with women in their adult life, preferring male friendships. The behaviours that a girl experiences in her friendship group may also place her at greater risk of domestic violence. Rachel Simmons, author of Odd Girl Out comments: “if we do not teach girls early on to know and resist these dynamics, we may be permitting the groundwork to be laid for violence in their adult lives” (6). As in the friendship group, a woman in a violent relationship begins to distrust her own judgment (ie. maybe her partner does really love her) and focuses on her possible wrongdoings as a way of avoiding future conflict. She is also discouraged from maintaining contact with others (family and friends). The threat of exclusion (in this case ending the relationship) is used by her partner as a means of control.

Bullying is not restricted to childhood/adolescence as the same behaviours are often carried through into workplaces. Workplace bullying appears to be more common in the fields of health and community services, education and public administration. At particular risk are those who are casual or temporary workers and those in apprenticeships and trainee positions (7).

Solutions

The first step is recognising the seriousness of bullying amongst girls and not dismissing it as a ‘rite of passage’. There are a number of different strategies which schools and parents can put in place to reduce the risk of bullying.


Schools

Schools can develop a policy on bullying which includes the forms of bullying utilised by girls (exclusion, rumours etc). The policy should describe the types of behaviours that will not be accepted and clearly outline the process for making a complaint about such behaviours. The development of a school bullying policy should be supported by education on the topic for staff, students and parents. The topic of bullying can also be incorporated into the school’s curriculum. For example, students could be asked to read fiction in which bullying is an aspect or to write a play incorporating a storyline on bullying. Banning or limiting the use of mobile phones and email during school hours can help reduce the incidence of cyberbullying. The ‘Bullying. No Way!’ website (see websites section) provides a ‘strategies map’ to assist schools in developing a safer, more inclusive school community.


Parents

Some parents may be oblivious to their daughter being the subject of bullying. This is particularly the case if it is coming from within her friendship group. Signs to look out for are mood changes (sadness, irritability, anger, withdrawal), change in academic performance, reluctance to attend school or other events with peers and ill health (headaches, stomach aches, nausea). When a parent discovers their daughter is being bullied they may react in a number of ways. Some parents find it difficult to comprehend and, therefore, the solutions they offer appear simplistic. For example, the advice to ‘find some new friends’ seems like an obvious solution to a parent but it merely demonstrates to their daughter they do not really understand the situation. Other parents may actually feel a sense of embarrassment that their daughter is unpopular. Their advice may tend to blame the daughter for the bullying (eg. “If you just lost some weight…”).

Rachel Simmons suggests the best thing a parent can do is to actively listen to their daughter (8). Finding out what she is being subjected to, the people involved, length of time it has been going on and to whom, if anyone, has she spoken about it, is a good start. Parents can then ask their daughter if they have any strategies of their own and what role they wish them to play. Some girls might just require someone to talk to while others might want their parents to approach a trusted teacher or the school.

It is also helpful if parents try to understand and empathise with their daughter’s need to fit in. This is often difficult for parents as they perceive it as a threat to their daughter’s individuality. Even though they may disagree with people being judged by what their wear or how they style their hair this does not stop it from being a reality in their daughter’s life. As Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bees and Wannabes, explains: “Adolescence is a beauty pageant. Even if your daughter doesn’t want to be a contestant, others will look at her as if she is. In Girl World, everyone is automatically entered” (8). This does not mean, however, that parents should give in to their daughter’s every whim. Rather, it means not dismissing their desires as foolish (“Who would pay that for a pair of jeans!”) and not always judging their choices by your criteria (yes, the other pair of shoes might last longer but longevity is not a high priority with adolescent girls). Efforts should be made to accommodate at least some of their requests. If cost is an issue parents can suggest for their daughter to get a part-time job, share the expense or request they do extra chores for a period of time.

A further strategy to reduce the likelihood of bullying is to encourage a daughter’s involvement in activities attended by girls other than those in her immediate friendship group. If she is the subject of bullying from her friendship group her interaction with other peers will provide her with an alternative perspective (ie. not everyone dislikes her). If some of her needs can be fulfilled from other peer relationships she will feel less dependent on the immediate friendship group.

Lastly, parents should remember that their own behaviour may model bullying tactics. If they say things about people behind their back, share gossip and give their partner the silent treatment they are suggesting that these behaviours are legitimate and acceptable.

Websites/Helplines

Bullying. No way!
http://www.bullyingnoway.com.au/default.shtml

This website was established by Education Queensland in collaboration with school authorities from the Commonwealth, State and Territory governments and Catholic and independent sectors. The website enables school communities, individual students, carers and staff to exchange ideas and useful strategies to combat bullying, violence, harassment and discrimination.

Kids Helpline
1800 55 1800
http://www.kidshelp.com.au

Kids Helpline is a free, confidential and anonymous, 24-hour telephone and online counselling service specifically for young people aged between five and 18. Bullying is the fourth most common reason young people seek help from Kids Helpline. In addition to providing counselling support, Kids Helpline’s website has a section on bullying which includes strategies and further sources of information http://www.kidshelp.com.au/template/standard.aspx?s=167&p=105&r=2&b=1


References

  1. Simmons, R. Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls Melbourne: Schwartz 2002; 20-21
  2. Kids Helpline. Infosheet 7: Bullying http://www.kidshelp.com.au/upload/4038.pdf. [website] date accessed: 14 January 2005.
  3. Simmons, R. Ibid; 54
  4. Belsey, B. http://www.cyberbullying.ca/ [website] date accessed: 14 January 2005
  5. Kids Helpline. Bullying-Everybody’s Business http://www.kidshelp.com.au/template/standard.aspx?s=167 [website] date accessed: 19 January 2005
  6. Simmons, R. Ibid; 161
  7. Queensland Government. Report of the Queensland Government Workplace Bullying Taskforce Report http://www.whs.qld.gov.au/taskforces/bullying/bullyingreport.pdf [website] date accessed: 12 January 2005; 16
  8. Simmons, R. Ibid; 232
  9. Wiseman, R. Queen Bees and Wannabes London: Piatkus 2002; 77

Source Queensland Health

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August 17, 2009 - Posted by | Adolescence, Bullying, Child Behavior, Resilience, Social Psychology | , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. I was very interested to read this since my son was the victim of a girl’s bullying and I’ve felt sort of powerless about it. Jeffrey is an Aspie and has a hard time understanding social dynamics. This girl (and her friends) would constantly tease him about girls being better than boys–just to see him get upset. He would strike out physically and wound up being expelled from school for all practical purposes, but the school NEVER did anything to stop this girl. I wish that more schools would realize that this subtle manipulation IS bullying and develop strategies to stop it.

    Comment by Heather | August 22, 2009 | Reply


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