Prompted by some new research positing that most aggression occurs among young people vying for social position, I made bullying the subject of my last column before vacation. I outlined the research findings and then began a conversation about how to help our girls deal with the mean behavior they will inevitably experience. Some of the advice came from our own counselors and some from Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bees & Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, & Other Realities of Adolescence. This column continues that conversation.
In their social world, there are three roles that girls can play: the bully, mean girl, or aggressor; the bystander; or the victim; and, by the way, these roles are not mutually exclusive—girls may play different roles at different times.
As parents, we are most likely to know when our daughter is the victim. Wiseman asserts that girls must stand up for themselves while “communicat[ing] [their] feelings respectfully, and ask[ing] for what [they] want clearly.”[i] She feels that ignoring mean behavior gives license for continued abuse. Beginning in third grade, we help girls learn to address hurtful actions forthrightly. We do role plays with the girls so they can practice the tough task of confronting their peers. Upper School Counselor Annette Levitine-Woodside agrees that in the case of verbal abuse, a girl should directly confront the abuser. On the other hand, Ms. Levitine-Woodside cautions that when a girl is excluded (such as not being invited to a party or denied a seat at the lunch table), it’s often best to respond by “trying to move on and be friendly to others rather than having a confrontation. The “mean girl,” she warns,” gets a charge out of thinking that the other person is upset.”
If you have reason to believe that your daughter is playing the role of mean girl, Wiseman recommends that you:
- [E]mpathize with her situation. Even if you think she’s behaving abominably, appreciate the awful pressure of the clique and her fear of losing her social status (remember that, according to the recent research, most aggressive behavior occurs as adolescents jockey for social position).
- Ask her questions to articulate her motivations and those of her friends.
- Have her review her expectations for friendship to clarify whether she thinks her behavior or that of her friends has stepped outside bounds.
- Articulate your values and ethics and how you would like to see them reflected in her behavior.
- Hold her accountable when she makes mistakes.[ii]
Needless to say, it’s extremely important to acknowledge and address mean behavior by our children.
The most common role is the bystander. Throughout our whole program, from Lower through Upper School, we counsel girls actively to shun the role of the passive bystander and take a proactive stance against meanness. Ms. Levitine-Woodside poignantly explains, “Students have told me how hurtful it is to have someone speak cruelly to them while another classmate stands by and watches.” By contrast, Malikka Rollins, interim Middle School counselor, “remind[s] [the girls ] that they play a powerful, influential role in the bullying scenarios when they choose to stand up and counter the bullying.” As parents, we can reinforce the School’s message by stressing the right way to treat one another, treatment that wouldn’t countenance standing by (physically or virtually online) when someone else is being hurt.
The internet and cell phones offer powerful, unsupervised venues where girls can treat others meanly. The ability to spread a mean comment widely is these mediums most damaging quality. If you’re not familiar with how easy, prevalent and dangerous this kind of behavior is, you should read the article about sexting in Sunday’s New York Times (“A Girl’s Nude Photo, Altered Lives,” Mar. 26, 2011). This piece recounts how an eighth grade girl sent a nude photo of herself to her boyfriend via cellphone; they broke up and he sent the photo to a girl with whom the original girl had had a falling out. The recipient of the photo added a text saying “Ho Alert! If you think this girl is a whore, then text this to all your friends.” With that she sent the photo and text to everyone on her contact list. Before long, hundreds, if not thousands, of people had received the nude photo and text.
As Rick Peters, a senior deputy prosecuting attorney for Thurston County, Washington, where the incident took place observed, “The idea of forwarding that picture was bad enough, but the text elevated it to something far more serious. It was mean-girl drama, an all-out attempt to destroy someone without thinking about the implications.”
Starting in Lower School, we try to help our girls understand the hazards of technology in social relations. Lower School Counselor Julie Rodriguez-Franson teaches students the importance of body language, a factor completely absent in texting or AIM. In sixth grade, the girls focus on how easy it is to bully with technology and how they can stop such behavior. Ms. Rodriguez-Franson even suggests that “many girls decide to stop using texting and AIM because of the ability people have to copy and paste and bully other people using their screen name.” Middle and Upper School counselors likewise warn girls against carrying out feuds online.
This is truly dangerous territory, and one the seriousness of which adolescents often don’t appreciate. The students involved in the Washington state photo/text incident were arrested for child pornography. In addition, without considerable vigilance that may feel very unwanted, it happens outside of adults’ vision. We, as parents, however, have an obligation to our children to protect them by knowing what our children are doing with their cell phones and Facebook accounts. As the father of the girl who originally sent the photo regretted, “I could say it was everyone else’s fault, [b]ut I had a piece of it, too. I learned a big lesson about my lack of involvement in her use of the phone and texting. I trusted her too much.”
Ultimately, the queen bees have power because their peers grant it. Ms. Rodriguez-Franson’s “goal is that the girls understand that they have the power to make the girls who are inclusive, get along with others and have the ability to work with any academic grouping the popular ones.” Girls mustn’t be bystanders, physically or virtually. They must know what they want in friends, and hold themselves to those standards in their relationships. They must resist the temptation to be mean to gain social status. And they need some help from adults to do all that.
The good news is that in a February 20 Washington Post article entitled “What Happens When Mean Girls Grow Up?,” Laura Sessions Stepp documents the decline in mean behavior that occurs as girls grow older. High school seniors are less aggressive than ninth graders and college seniors are, likewise, less aggressive than freshmen. Moreover, a 2008 study by the Meredith Corporation, a media and marketing firm that owns magazines like Fitness and Better Homes and Gardens, showed that among the cohort of women aged 18-64, “slightly more than half the respondents identified themselves as inclusive rather than competitive, motivated more by the desire to interact than impress. The positive characteristics began to be particularly noticeable as young women moved through their 20s and beyond.”
We need to help our girls get through pre-adolescence and adolescence with as much self-esteem as possible, a goal to which we as a School devote considerable energy. Their self-esteem will help them stand up to mean behavior and standing up, if handled properly and supported by those around them, will help build self-esteem. Eventually, they can put this kind of behavior behind them.
[i] Wiseman, Queen Bees & Wannabes, 172.
[ii] Wiseman, 172.
Sources: Jan Hoffman, “A Girl’s Nude Photo, Altered Lives,” The New York Times, Mar. 26, 2011; http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/27/us/27sexting.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&ref=general&src=me).
Laura Sessions Stepp, “What Happens When Mean Girls Grow Up?’ The Washington Post, Feb 20, 2011; http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/02/11/AR2011021104947.html
Friday April, 1, 2011 at 09:44AM