Ashley and Chelsea are in sixth grade and have been best friends since kindergarten. Their friendship has been typical up until this year. Recently, a group of girls who others consider popular recruited Chelsea to hang out with them, which has left Ashley confused and angry.
Flattered by the attention, Chelsea has stopped talking to Ashley without explanation. Chelsea and Ashley no longer sit together at lunch or on the bus and Chelsea’s new friends have started giving Ashley mean looks and whispering when she walks by.
Ashley has retaliated by starting a rumor about Chelsea on Instagram. Her attempt is thwarted, though, when Chelsea and her new friends convince most of the girls in sixth and seventh grade to give Ashley the silent treatment.
After weeks of anxiety and misery, Ashley finally breaks down and tells her parents. Her parents express surprise when they find out this group of girls has bullied Ashley, but tell her all girls go through this experience at some point.
Rachel Simmons, author of Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, calls this behavior relational, or social, aggression. Social Aggression involves engaging in acts such as starting rumors, excluding, threatening to end relationships, or using negative body language or facial cues– all with the intention of damaging self-esteem and social status.
Yet social aggression among girls is not a new problem. This type of abuse has been in the spotlight in recent years due to the psychological trauma it causes, as well as the increased number of suicides related to bullying of all kinds.
Collectively, society seems to believe conflict among girls is a normal, even necessary, developmental phase girls experience, and some parents even encourage it – but some experts believe social aggression is not a necessary rite of passage. When girls deal with pain that comes from social conflict, they are not practicing or rehearsing for life, but living it.
What Does Social Aggression Look Like?
Both boys and girls experience social aggression, but boys tend to be more physical in the ways they bully one another. Girls, however, are often much more secretive and covert. Sometimes, teachers and other adults have no idea that social aggression among and between girls has occurred since girls can create a power imbalance with just a look.
They use cold looks or stares to lash out, and whisper when they want to upset each other. Some use technology such as Facebook or Snapchat to start rumors or post inappropriate pictures; still, some exclude others based on their clothing, appearance, or academic achievement, often in the name of popularity.
The ways girls bully each other are numerous and often calculated. This behavior is likely to resonate with many adults who recall similar situations from their own youth. However, this behavior no longer begins in middle school. According to Simmons, “By age three, more girls than boys are relationally aggressive, a schism that only widens as children mature.” Social aggression, then, has become much more complicated.
Social Aggression, Technology, and Cyberbullying
Cell phones, tablets, computers– all are handy devices, all are common among middle and high school students, and these students use all of these to create power imbalances. Technology makes it easy for girls to bully. In reference to technology use and conflict among girls, Simmons points out, “All of these feelings, which girls used to have time to process and react to, are now bundled into quick, digital gusts of emotion.”
There is no eye contact, no tone of voice to consider, no immediate consequence. Many girls embrace a false sense of confidence when using technology in this manner and behave in ways they would not in person. Further, using technology complicates how girls understand each other.
They become uncertain of a friend’s intention because there are no facial cues or body language to read. Emoticons, such as a smiley face or winking smiley face, suddenly have multiple meanings. Social media, in particular, brings adolescent insecurity to new levels. For example, many girls endure authentic anxiety over how many “likes” or comments their posts generate.
This, in turn, creates more opportunities for girls to compare themselves, thus contributing to the social aggression cycle. While many schools have taken a stance against bullying, many are hesitant to adopt a policy against cyberbullying since it is difficult to address what happens after school. Although some of this conflict occurs after school hours, the repercussions follow girls right back to the classroom. Many teachers and administrators are uncertain how to address situations like this.
Social Aggression at School: Hard to Spot, But Still Thrives
Like boys, many girls torment one another at recess, in the hallways, in the bathroom, or on the bus. They choose opportunities when adults are not looking or are not present. While most boys are known to exhibit more physically aggressive behavior and are often louder, many girls stay under the teacher’s radar.
Despite many schools’ adoption of a zero tolerance policy on bullying, social aggression among girls is still an issue. There are several potential explanations for this. The first involves the way the school administrations write the anti-bullying policies. Many policies use vague, all-encompassing language that focus on direct, physical conflict.
Some policies don’t consider the types of social aggression more closely related to girls and, ultimately, miss the mark. Of course, boys can start rumors or give each other mean looks just as girls can slam one another up against the lockers; but, generally speaking, boys’ conflicts are often physical and girls’ conflicts are often verbal or non-verbal.
Another possible reason social aggression exists involves schools taking an unspoken non-interference stance on social aggression. Many teachers and administrators view conflict among and between girls as a universal, normal issue that prepares them for high school and beyond. Therefore, some teachers are not as quick to address trouble when it arises, justifying that the conflict is a rite of passage.
Lastly, teachers have much to accomplish with their students each day– lesson plans, tests, birthday party treats, classroom management, just to name a few– and addressing aggression in the classroom takes time and extra attention. Handing out detention slips to boys who exchange harsh words or hit each other in math class is much easier than untangling the complicated web of conflict usually associated with girls. Teachers are often working so diligently to help students learn that they don’t realize the stealthy conversations that are taking place with girls’ eyes or subtle whispers.
Understanding Girls Better: Cliques and Popularity
Most girls will drift toward a group of friends at some point in their growth. Having a group of friends with which a girl has something in common can be healthy, build self-esteem, and provide a sense of belonging.
However, if the group becomes exclusive and won’t allow certain girls to play or hang out, a power imbalance will develop and a clique emerges. As some girls get older, a sense of popularity becomes more important, and sometimes becomes based on clothing, performance on a sports team, academic achievement, and interactions with boys, among other factors.
Some girls view social status and popularity as the answer to all their problems and will do whatever it takes to achieve it. Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bees and Wannabes, has created labels, or roles, to illustrate how “girl world” looks when a clique has developed. While labels can be counterproductive, Wiseman intends for her role descriptions to help parents and teachers better understand the hierarchy within a group of girls.
Wiseman asserts that most cliques have a “queen bee,” or a girl who is at the top of the social hierarchy. This girl can generally be described as popular, pretty, and powerful. Other girls often want to be near her just to strengthen their own social status. The queen bee usually has a “side kick” who is closest to her and is second in command in a group.
The side kick is often pushed around by the queen bee, but she derives her power from association with the queen bee and willingly accepts the queen bee’s behavior.
The next role is the “banker.” This girl gains power by gathering and possessing information, or gossip. When the time is right, the banker will spread the information to create drama and keep the hierarchy in order. The banker is secretive and often quiet in front of adults, so most adults don’t suspect she is causing trouble.
The “messenger” trades personal information about others as well, but her goal is to help others get along. She loves when drama occurs because she will have the chance to help solve the conflict. In doing so, the messenger hopes to gain social status and power.
Another role in a clique is the “wannabe.” This girl is constantly on the margin of the group, as she has very little power. The wannabe is easily manipulated by the queen bee and will change her taste in music and clothing, for example, if the queen bee changes hers.
Just under the wannabe is the “torn bystander.” This girl wants to help the “target,” but doesn’t want to have to choose between friends. The torn bystander has a hard time saying “no” and just wants everyone to get along. Accordingly, this girl stays silent and goes along with the group.
Last in line is the “target.” This is the girl who gets excluded, made fun of, or bullied in some other way. While the target is often not part of the clique, a girl within the clique can become a target if she somehow challenges or offends the queen bee or a girl higher up in the group.
The girl who is not necessarily a part of the clique, but gets along with its members, is the “champion.” According to Wiseman, this girl…”can take criticism, doesn’t make people choose friends, and doesn’t blow someone off for a better offer. She has friends in different groups and doesn’t treat people differently when groups are together.” Of course, many parents would prefer if their daughter were a champion, but that is not always realistic.
It is important for parents to be aware of these varying group dynamics and be honest about how their daughter is treating others and how others treat their daughter.
Possible Reasons for Social Aggression
Social aggression among girls is a complex issue that involves many variables. For this reason, there seems to a wide spectrum of explanations for why girls behave the way they do sometimes. On a broader scale, society has set the tone for girls.
Girls learn a code of conduct early on that involves being nice and repressing anger, as parents and teachers alike show intolerance when girls get angry or are unkind to a sibling or peer. This type of behavior is much more acceptable among boys.
Accordingly, girls drift through their childhood ill-equipped to address challenging feelings such as frustration, jealousy, or anger. By the intermediate and middle grades, girls are fully aware that adults expect them to “be nice” and they begin to devise stealthy, under the radar ways to vent their anger or frustration over interpersonal conflict.
Perhaps a more direct explanation for social aggression lies much closer to home: parents. Parents set the tone within their family culture for the ways girls interact with others. If a girl hears her parent gossip about friends, the girl is likely to gossip about her friends, too.
When a family obsesses over celebrities, appearance, or money, this thinking is very likely to filter down to its girls. An excessive emphasis on competition sets girls up for conflict as well. In addition, when parents experience discord and drama within their own friendships, girls will take note since this is what they see being modeled. In reference to daughters, Wiseman reminds parents: “Being a credible role model depends on you consistently demonstrating the core values you believe in and want her to practice.”
The roles that Wiseman presents to illustrate social hierarchy among girls is often present for adults as well. Most parents are able to think of “queen bee” mothers, as well as those who are on the margin. For more information on the ways parents affect social aggression, consider reading, Queen Bee Moms and King Pin Dads, also from Rosalind Wiseman.
Offering Girls Support
Often parents experience a myriad of emotions when they realize their daughter is a target of social aggression– or when they discover their daughter is participating in aggressive acts. The girls involved have likely been to one another’s homes many times, and the parents can envision the girls playing so nicely as younger children.
But relationships evolve for better or worse and all parties involved face confusion about how to deal with conflict, especially when the conflict is often of such a deep, personal nature. Ultimately, many parents wonder whether they should intervene. The resounding answer is yes. But parents should not view the intervention as meddling, but as offering support and guidance.
Parents can consider the following ideas when addressing social aggression:
- Awareness- When parents take stock of their own friendships and behavior within their family culture, they will have a better idea of how their daughters are conducting themselves.
- What Not to Say: Most girls will encounter a friend or peer who acts aggressively toward them at some point. It’s tempting to say, “I never liked her anyway!” or “I’m not sure why you were hanging out with her in the first place,” or “She’s just jealous of you.” But these lines are sure to complicate matters, especially when the girls reconcile. In addition, avoid telling girls, “This is just a phase,” or “Girls will be girls!”, as phrases like this could cause girls to push parents away.
- Say this instead: Instead of giving into an angry knee-jerk reaction, take a deep breath and listen. When the time is right, consider saying, “I’m so sorry to hear this,” or “Why do you think they’re treating you like this?” The following phrases may also be helpful: “Let’s brainstorm together ways to make things better,” or “What does a good friend look like to you? Does this girl meet your criteria?”
- Build Self-Esteem- Targets and queen bees alike often suffer from low self-esteem. Further, self-esteem seems to drop during the middle years, as we can observe in a circle of girls too insecure to stand by themselves. Seek opportunities to build a girl’s self-esteem. Avoid excessive compliments about a girl’s clothing, hair, or appearance, in general. Instead, focus on her character, a goal she has set, or her effort on a task. Often, this can be accomplished when parents spend quality time with girls and help them find and build their strengths.
- Teach Conflict Resolution- All girls will experience conflict at some point. When they realize there are steps they can take to put some space in between themselves and their big feelings, they may feel empowered.
- Encourage Emotional Intelligence- Emotional intelligence involves having awareness of one’s own feelings, as well as those of others, getting along with others in a variety of social situations, controlling impulses, and learning from personal setbacks. Girls who have a high degree of emotional intelligence are likely to recover more quickly from situations such as losing a game, earning a poor grade, or being bullied. Listening to girls express their feelings and helping them identity these feelings will help nurture emotional intelligence. For more information on emotional intelligence, consider reading Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.”
- Seek Support from Administration and Teachers – Most teachers and administrators welcome parent contact and involvement. Ask for a copy of your school’s anti-bullying or cyber-bullying policy. Further, don’t assume your child’s teacher is indifferent if you discover social aggression among girls. Most teachers work hard to meet all kids’ needs and, in the process, don’t always witness covert, malicious behavior. Your daughter’s teacher and principal can’t help if they lack awareness of the problem.
Social Aggression: Just A Rite of Passage?
Social aggression is a complex issue that many parents, teachers, and even some girls themselves come to expect. While society promotes conflict among girls in books, movies, and music, aggressive behavior toward one another doesn’t have to be a rite of passage. Girls and their parents and teachers can rise above this mindset.
With better communication skills, validation of anger and frustration, as well as awareness of potential social dynamics, girls can collectively shed light on this issue that has plagued them for generations and slowly create a shift in the paradigm.