Tag Archives: cyber bullying

What parents can do about bullying: helping girls manage relational aggression

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.

For while sticks and stones may break girls bones, words (and malicious rumours and cyber harassment and social ostracization) can break their spirits and their hearts.drawing-bullying4

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Sugar and Spice and Being Horrid

Sugar and spice and all things nice, that’s what little girls are made of. Except, it seems, when they’re cracking bottles over each other’s heads, calling each other fat cows, spreading offensive, defamatory rumours or disinviting each other from parties, Facebook and Blackberry Messenger.

I’m sure many parents were distressed by recent reports of the 15-year old schoolgirl at Krugersdorp High School in Johannesburg who attacked a fellow pupil with a glass bottle. This incident seemed to be at the tail end of a string of bullying and harassing incidents that had passed between these particular girls.

We should be distressed but not surprised. 

Many teachers, parents and psychologists have become increasingly aware over the last couple of years of an apparent rise in female bullying. This is sometimes called ‘relational aggression’ as physical assault usually plays only a small part in the pattern of behaviour.

Relational aggression includes spreading rumours, verbally insulting, exclusion from friendship groups and hostile and dismissive body language. It is different from the normal conflicts that occasionally flare up between girls, in that the aggression is persistent and relentless, usually targeting on one or two individuals. It can happen anywhere and in any age group, but it is most commonly played out in school settings and is most intense in the middle school, between grades 6 to 10.  

As I said earlier, I believe girl-on-girl bullying has become more common, partly as a result of the availability of more instant forms of communication. A study of young people, conducted in South Africa in 2009 by the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention, found that about 25% of them had been bullied by means of text messages, and that almost 70% of text messaging bullies had been bullied themselves through sms. 

Why is this verbal bullying more common amongst girls? Partly it’s because girls generally invest more in friendships than boys do, and so the stakes are much higher, the hurt greater, when conflicts arise. Words are the instrument of affection but also the weapon of choice.

Any girl can be a victim or aggressor, and many issues can incite incidents. But one common thread that runs through these fights is the social isolation of a victim so that the status of the in-group is enhanced. Ring-leaders of the in-groups might resent competition from the victim or want more attention for themselves, and it’s not uncommon for those leaders to have an unstable self-esteem, one that is easily threatened by new voices and competing influences.

The chief bully in the group is often a seemingly popular and charming girl whom parents and teachers like and give lots of attention to. In other words, not the sort of person who would automatically be suspected of such behaviour. queen bee and enabler

The American parenting educator, Rosalind Wiseman, describes these girls as “queen bees”. She points out that other girls often hover around queen bees out of fear of being excluded from their approval, and that the queen bee (or mean girl or ruler of the clique) is often not well liked by her peers, but that she makes them afraid.

Complicating matters for all parties – parents, targets and teachers – is that the very nature of relational aggression makes it more difficult to detect and take seriously.

If a girl comes to you and says that her friends have started turning away from her when she approaches, rolling their eyes at her when she speaks, or telling others that she is fat, you might not understand that this is part of a relentless campaign that happens behind your back. Victims often fail to report what has happened and can suffer for a long time without being helped. 

Johannesburg psychologist Lesley Rosenthal adds that “Part of the problem is that girls are socialised to be good and nice and compliant and people pleasers and therefore project a false self to the world. Social competition and aggression are denied and frowned upon as unfeminine. So the behaviour gets expressed covertly, through the bitchy meanness manifest in relational aggression.”

So much for sugar and spice and the world of nursery rhymes. It’s much more the little girl, who had a little curl, “right in the middle of her forehead. When she was good, she was very good indeed, but when she was bad she was horrid.”