Girls bully too. They may not always mean to, but they do. They may initiate the activity as the “Queen Bees “ of a group, perpetuate the behaviour by acting as “wannabees’’or “sidekicks”, or just let it happen by being passive bystanders. Rather than fists and stones, their weapons of choice are their tongue and their thumbs, with which text messages are sent out to the gang of friends. In an instant, someone is unfriended and a systematic programme of verbal abuse and ostracisation begins.
In a previous column I wrote about this relational aggression amongst girls. This week I want to make some suggestions about what parents can do about it.
First, look to thine own self. We don’t always think of it but adults are often bullies. If you bully colleagues or friends, ignoring their phone calls, dismissing their ideas publically, leaving them out of social events, your daughter is bound to see this as a model for social interactions. ‘Ah,’ she might think, ‘so that’s how I deal with my insecurities. Strengthen my standing in the group by turning the others against a common enemy.’
Next, have a pre-emptive conversation with your daughter about bullying, preferably around age 10 when it most commonly starts. Talk to her about what relational aggression looks like, ask if she has seen it around her and talk about strategies she can use if it does happen one day. Teach and model healthy assertiveness.
Make it clear to her and her friends that not only will you not tolerate relational aggression, but you will always be there for them if they need to talk about it in future. This increases the chance that a victim you know will ask for your help before things get too bad, bearing in mind that victims of relational aggression often keep silent.
Advise your daughter not to invest her all at school, in one group of friends or one area of activity. Encourage her to have some friends and interests away from school. School can be a hothouse of insecurities and jealousies, sealed off from other influences. A girl who has friends and activities out of school has a much better chance of keeping her perspective on bullies in school.
One of my clients was a teenage girl who really struggled to integrate with other girls at her new school. Somehow she just couldn’t crack the codes of behaviour and be accepted. “I honestly don’t know what I’m doing wrong,” she would say. She turned out fine in the end not so much because of anything I did or said (although counselling is another important remedy) but because she was highly involved in the equestrian world, where she had other friends, from other schools and earned commendations for her achievements.
For the same reason (having other areas of emotional investment) a girl excelling at a particular academic or extra-mural activity in school might suffer less when she is harassed by her social group.
Then there’s writing. Jassy Mackenzie, a Johannesburg crime novelist, says that writing her first novel helped her to come to terms with a brush with crime. In the same way, journaling or keeping a private diary helps many girls to clarify their feelings, record incidents and have a safe place just to be. Encourage your daughter to write about all her feelings, and to include writing about positive experiences and emotions too.
Also, listen to your daughter and don’t minimise her feelings. I am reminded of Alice Sebold’s autobiographical account, called ‘Lucky’, about her rape at Syracuse University. When she reports the crime to the police the first thing they tell her is that she is lucky because another girl was raped and murdered in the same spot. Minimising feelings in this way is a failure to understand an individual’s particular experience, added to the fact that adolescence has a unique character and intensity that adults can rarely fully remember and understand.
Of course, remember that any story you hear you will only be part of the story. While you listen, keep an open mind and don’t jump to any hasty conclusions.
But it is always important to take action.
Encourage your daughter to report bullying and harrassment, with your active support if necessary. Often people are afraid that reporting and intervening will make the problem worse. But it is very important that you bring these issues to the attention of school management. Schools need to take relational aggression as seriously as physical aggression. All schools should have comprehensive anti-bullying policies and positive social behaviour programmes in place.