Girls on the Attack

Combatting the rise in female bullying.

What’s happening to girls today? According to the FBI, national assault arrests for girls jumped 40.9 percent between 1992-2003, while similar arrests for boys dropped by 16.4 percent. On other fronts, one in four American high school girls reported sparring at least once in a recent one-year period, and the century-old national children’s crisis charity, KidsPeace, which helps thousands of youngsters at 63 centers each day to overcome traumas and crises in their young lives, reports a significant uptick in helping girls deal with bullying and violence.

“One of the big problems about aggression and bullying among girls is that many of us don’t recognize it when we see it, and we don’t know what to do about it when we do recognize it,” says KidsPeace president and CEO, C.T. O’Donnell II.

“Traditional aggression roles are changing,” says Dr. Herbert Mandell, medical director of KidsPeace and the KidsPeace Children’s Hospital in Orefield, PA. “Aggression in girls and young women has gotten significantly more dangerous and women have begun to close the gap with the guys.”

To help parents, teachers and others to recognize the signs of girl aggression (which are often overlooked or misinterpreted), and help the bullied, the bullies themselves and bystanders (those who witness female bullying but are not sure how to intervene), O’Donnell, Mandell and experts at the KidsPeace Institute have put together a list of tips and resources:

Things We Should Know About Female Bullying

  • Female bullying is different than male bullying. Many times girls do not fit exclusively into one category— bully, victim or bystander. Very often their behavior depends on the situation. They may alternate roles depending on whom they are with and dynamics of the current social structure.
  • Girls are known to be less physical and more “discreet” in their bullying than boys. This may be due to the fact that girls are socialized to avoid overt and physical displays of anger. In order to express their feelings, they resort to subversive and passive-aggressive forms of interaction.
  • It is important to “keep tabs” on girls even if you (or they) don’t think they are being bullied, because they themselves may often not realize what’s going on. If a girl tells her she’s “fat,” she may believe her. If she’s not included in a sleepover, she may believe she doesn’t deserve to go. These comments and power plays can be internalized until her self-concept and self-esteem are destroyed, all without her knowing what’s happening or before any adult can intervene.

Helping the Victim

  • Encourage the victim to talk. Talking to a trusted, caring person reduces the isolation of a victim and helps build up her confidence so she can face the problem. This may be the one thing that prevents a girl from going to an extreme (such as suicide) to cope with the situation.
  • Be an ally. Any girl who is being victimized by bullying and aggression needs to know she can enlist the help and support of adults if necessary. In many cases, the problem has become “too big” for her to handle alone. Telling a child or group of children to “just work it out” may not be helpful. Remember that female aggression is more difficult to pinpoint and prove, so intervening in these situations may not be “cut and dry.”
  • Teach new skills. Girls can learn better ways for coping with victimization which may include:
    • Standing up to the bully verbally.
    • Using humor.
    • Walking away.
    • Changing behaviors that provoke the bullying.
    • Building healthy friendships with others that can be a support system.
    • Probably the most important skill that can be taught to girls is how to be assertive and straightforward in their expression of frustration and anger.
  • Foster self-esteem. Help her find ways to feel successful in other areas of her life such as academics, hobbies, interests, athletics, etc. When she has a strong base within herself, she is better able to face social difficulties.

Helping the Bystander

  • Send the message. All the kids you parent or work with should know how you feel about bullying and that it’s not tolerated. Kids should be held accountable for how they treat each other in effective, consistent ways whether the setting is home, school, community groups/clubs, sports teams, etc.
  • Teach peaceful intervention. Adults can help kids learn how to recognize unsafe and abusive relational patterns, and also how to intervene peacefully. This is another way to reduce the isolation of a victim. Adults should be committed to taking reports of relational aggression seriously and assisting when necessary.
  • Not helping is hurting. Teach kids that watching when someone is abused or bullied is just as harmful as doing the bullying themselves. Make sure that they know the proper channels for getting someone the help they need if necessary.

Helping the Bully

  • Let her know that you know. Bullies who use relational and passive aggression to inflict pain on others believe that their behavior flies “under the radar” with adults. Unfortunately, this is often the case. Once you have detected the pattern, it is helpful to call out the behavior. Even if the girl denies it, she knows that you are aware of her tactics and may be more careful in the future.
  • Teach acceptable ways of expressing anger. Girls tend to use relational and passive aggression because it has been more socially acceptable than physical aggression for them. If they are going to stop the passive aggression, new and better ways need to be learned for coping with and expressing anger. Once girls find success with these better methods, they are more likely to reduce the abusive patterns.
  • Hold subversive bullies accountable. Relational aggression can literally ruin a girl’s self-esteem and positive outlook on life. It is a form of harassment— NOT freedom of speech, as some believe. These epidemic behaviors will decrease only when the aggressors are held accountable and taught more acceptable means of interacting with peers.