The start of a new school year means new books, new teachers, new friends… and new opportunities to be picked on. Bullies are not always boys. Girls have always had verbal and physical confrontations, but the seriousness of these behaviors is reaching new heights.
Female bullies may use words rather than fists, but their weapons, gossip, ridicule, rumors, and name-calling are just as hurtful. According to Cheryl Dellasega, co-author of Girl Wars, a new book about the phenomenon, the problem is widespread.
"Relational aggression seems to affect all girls", she said. "It takes place everywhere. It seems like something that, unfortunately, is occurring in urban, rural, and suburban areas."
Bullying might begin, at a very low level, in elementary school, as girls begin pairing off and excluding other girls from their circle of friends. It reaches its peak in middle school, when girls start to hit puberty. Ms. Dellasega says that everybody involved in a bullying behavior, the victim, the bully, and the by-stander, is afraid.
"The bully is afraid that she is going to be attacked. So she, sort of, does the preemptive strike. She's also afraid that people are not going to like her for who she is," explains Ms. Dellasega. "She relies then on other strategies to kind of stay on top. And of course, the victim is afraid because she never knows what is going to come next. She could be a target by another person, or the aggression could escalate. And the girl that watches is afraid because she is uncomfortable seeing this happen. She does not have the self-esteem to stand up because she's afraid: 'I'll be next if I say something.'" Ms. Dellasega says there are ways to break the cycle of what she calls 'relational aggression'… and even to prevent it all together.
"Starting from the very early age, parents can give their daughters good relationship skills including talking to them about friendship and getting them to look at friendship qualities," she said. "Once the girl is actually involved in a situation where there is an aggression going on, we have a lot of strategies that could be specific to the situation. Most importantly you want the girl herself to try initially to come up with a solution."
Ms. Dellasega has seen these strategies work, in a summer camp and after-school club she founded in her hometown in Pennsylvania. At Club Ophelia, high school girls serve as mentors for girls in middle school. Frances, 13, joined the program last year to learn what to say and do when she is targeted by a bully. She says prejudice often leads to harassment.
"Sometimes, when there is one girl that looks different, let's say she does not dress like most of the girls do, and there is a popular crowd and they decide that they do not like the way she is dressing, they would regularly make fun of her. It is not right to be made fun of for no reason," she said.
Jennell, a 17-year-old who took part in the program as a mentor, says as girls get older they learn how to handle relational aggression. She says when younger girls open up and talk about their problems, mentors can offer advice. "Well, first I ask them if it is something that's minor, like it is a name calling or something like this, I tell them they can learn to ignore it and find the right crowd to hang out with," she said. "If it is something that is more serious, they probably have to get someone else involved. I think it is good to work with younger girls. They get a role model and I get a younger friend. So we both learn."
Similar programs have been started in other U.S. communities. Rosland Wiseman runs one through the Empower organization, a non-profit group in the Washington D.C. area that works with young people to end violence.
"I started the organization 10 years ago," she said. "It evolved into a bullying prevention program. We have a curricula, that is a semester long, that goes into an eighteen classes and it is for boys and girls. It usually targets about seven thousand kids a year. We go into classes. Health classes, P.E. (physical education) classes, even math classes. We teach this curricula and also teach teachers to do their curricula in their schools."
Ms. Wiseman says such programs help girls navigate through adolescence. They also help teachers manage their classes.
"Lots of time people think: 'Ah. This is just girls being girls, and we cannot take away from math, science and history,'" she said. "It is absolutely true, but if you do not address social issues, your daughter, when dealing with this, will not be able to focus on anything but with whom and where she is going to sit on lunch. So in reality this is going to impact your daughter's performance in school. And teachers are not trained to be able to see who's bullying who, and who's being the target. So, who is really in control in the classroom at that situation is the bully. That's why I spend so much time with teachers."
Ms. Wiseman says teachers and parents should work together to raise what she calls 'morally courageous' children.
"Moral courage is the ability to stand up and speak out when they see somebody treated badly, inhumanely and without dignity," she said. "We teach them the skills to be able to be good in the world, and that, I'd argue, is as important if not more so than being in school."
The escalating aggression among girls does not mean girls are inherently cruel, according to Girl Wars co author Cheryl Dellasega. She places the blame on a culture that prizes independence, competition and achievement at all costs. She says the key to ending bullying is to encourage girls to connect without being motivated by what they can get from the relationship and by teaching them to treat people the way they'd like to be treated.