Journalist Katie Hampson examines bullying among girls and cutting through the nastiness.
Sugar and spice and all things nice: that’s what little girls are made of. Let’s all agree there is a lot to love about girls. Let’s not, however, cling to sentimental notions about them.
Girl relationships can be a tumultuous business. Girls can be cruel. They can also be beautiful friends one minute and terrible enemies the next.
“There is a strong sense of intimacy that girls feel with their friends, which can be such a beautiful thing, but it can also be such a damaging thing when things go wrong, and they often will,” explains Dannielle Miller, chief executive of Enlighten Education and Goodfellas.
While pecking orders and cliques have always existed, a different type of psychological warfare has the attention of parents and educators. It’s known as relational aggression, which is rooted in the manipulation of relationships. Think gossip and exclusion.
It tends to be subtle, almost imperceptible at times, but the effects can be confusing and hurtful.
Dr Kevin Runions, an honorary senior research fellow with the Telethon Kids Institute who also directed the Beyond Bullying project, says girl dramas really kick-off at about age nine, so Year 4 or 5, when the boundaries of friendships are being tested and little clusters or cliques really begin to take shape.
A girl may discover a secret she shared with a friend is being used against her.
She might be gossiped about just loudly enough so she hears a few unsettling snippets, fearing the whole school is talking behind her back. Or perhaps it feels like everyone was invited to a party except for her.
She may consider herself a true friend only to be left behind by her bestie who has joined the “popular” group.
These are some of the scenarios that are wretchedly familiar for some young girls.
“There is this testing out of the boundaries of friendships, such as demanding loyalty and testing that loyalty and some people really seem to run with that,” adds Dr Runions, a highly regarded bullying expert.
“In the complexity of kids’ lives, parents kind of need to understand that, to an extent, unpleasant stuff is going to happen and kids can bounce back from all sorts of stuff.
“However, kids need coaching from thoughtful parents, not parents who overreact.
“Being a smart coach is listening and saying something like ‘Yeah, you’ve got a complicated relationship here with your friend’.
“It’s when it gets beyond all that that parents need to stick an oar in and really make something happen at the school level.”
Children cannot be expected to brush off bullying, which requires action, he says, but that sort of victimisation should be distinguished from girl drama.
“If you have two friends who are being nasty and dramatic to each other, then that is not bullying. As almost every researcher in the world would say, that is just conflict between friends, and we need to support our children through those conflicts and sometimes you have to say ‘Maybe that kid isn’t your friend’, and that ‘Life sucks sometimes’.
“But when there is an ongoing situation where someone is being harmed and the kid can’t do anything to stop it, then you are talking about bullying.
“There is value in parents seeing that this power differential has to be there — so, someone is being attacked in some way and they can’t defend themselves for some reason — or else you are going to make a mountain out of a molehill.
“Now, it’s hard to say sometimes where the testing of friendship and the bullying begins. It can get grey so, if you are in the position of judge, you always want to find out if something is being done because they actually want to harm someone and gain something specific from it.
“The thing with kids is, they might just be being rude, and there’s innocent rudeness.”
Ms Miller, who runs workshops in schools to empower and inspire girls by teaching them how to decipher the mixed messages they receive, says many dramas between girls happen outside of school hours on text, online or in person but it carries over into the classroom and teachers are left with the aftermath.
“Teachers are very dedicated and well aware of the complex issues their girls are dealing with but there is only so much they can do (when it is not bullying),” she explains.
“It is really vital we give girls great skills to know how to resolve conflict respectfully.
“It’s not being shown in popular culture because all teenagers seem to watch is heightened drama in shows like Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars where people murder each other over fall outs.
“However, I know lots of grown women who say ‘I am still best friends with all of the same girls I was friends with in school’ so friendships …(handled well) can be enduring.
“Friendships are so important to our sense of happiness and wholeness yet we rarely explicitly teach young people how to resolve things.”
Guide to surviving mean girls:
1.PLAN AHEAD: Think hard about what you are going to say. Perhaps brainstorm how you are feeling first with a person you trust, such as your mum or dad, a favourite coach, teacher or the school counsellor.
2.NO AUDIENCE: A one-on-one private conversation is always best. Don’t put it online. Talk in the real world. Do not invite others to participate.
3.USE “I” WORDS: Avoid saying “You betrayed me”, or “You were showing off”, or “You can’t be trusted”. Say things such as “I feel hurt”, or “I feel let down”, or “I feel left out when you do this”. By using “I” words, you are owning your own feelings and experiences. Don’t blame or shame.
4.BE ASSERTIVE: You want to be taken seriously. But don’t be aggressive.
5.FULL ATTENTION: It’s fair to expect attention during a discussion so, if the person you are trying to resolve things with is waving to someone across the playground, then that is not fair. You could say “I can see you’re busy so I am happy to come back later but I would like your full attention”. It frames how much this exchange means to you as well as keeping it focused.
6.DON’T BRING UP THE PAST: Focus on the issue and be really specific about it. Past grievances shouldn’t be resurrected. Learn to let go and move on.
7.GIVE THE OTHER PERSON TIME: Although you might give yourself time to plan what you want to say, give the other person time, too. You could say “I feel very hurt and heard some things were said, so can we talk after school?”
8.LEAVE THE DOOR OPEN: You don’t have to be friends again but you should certainly be able to get to a place where you are friendly. Girls often hear things like “We should all be friends”, but it is foolish of us to expect girls to like each other all of the time. It is reasonable, however, to teach them to be civil or friendly. Remember, girls don’t all need to be friends but they do need to be friendly.
Source: Dannielle Miller, Enlighten Education
The science on being popular
When a classroom of kids was asked who they liked, they named kids who were liked by a lot of other kids. Objectively, explains Dr Runions, kids on that list are actually the “popular” children. When researchers asked that same classroom who the “popular kids” were at school, they listed kids who were liked by some but actually disliked by many others. So objectively, these were not popular kids. These were just the “cool kids”. If your child is feeling on the outer, he suggests asking this: “Would you rather be a kid who is actually popular or a kid who people think is popular but actually a lot of people don’t like you?” Perspective usually helps.
Talk to kids about bystander behaviour. It’s about teaching them not to stand by and do nothing if they see other kids being hurt. For instance, they can stand up for a victim by telling the teacher or their parents what they saw. It’s about turning bystanders into upstanders.
Mean girls tips for parents
- You have a role as a gatekeeper of friendships. In the early years, you can pick and choose who your child has play dates with.
- Avoid intimate one-on-one friendships at the exclusion of others. Encourage a broad group of friends.
- If an incident happens, don’t overreact. It does not help.
- Strive for triangulation. You need to get a sense of whether your own child has a role in this. Dr Runions says while we all love our children, consider whether they have a role in this that does not make them a straight-up victim. Get multiple sources on what happened, if possible. “This is not to say you don’t believe your child,” Dr Runions says. “It’s just that when dealing with children, they are sometimes not old enough to have their heads around the whole issue.”
- The parent’s role is to listen and engage with their child about ways they might be ready to do things to make the situation different.
- Listen to what your child is comfortable with and, if they are not comfortable, then take things slow.
- Put yourself on the couch and ask yourself if what is happening is something you are equipped to think straight about. If not, another trusted person may be better placed to help guide your child through it.
“Suggest kindness to your kids if they want to be popular, because it works,” says Dr Runions. “You don’t have to be a jerk to be cool.”
Did you know?
The reasons why girls and boys bully are pretty similar. Most of the emphasis is on trying to get a position of popularity. But also, as you dig into it with kids, revenge comes up.
— Dr Kevin Runions
‘Friendships are so important to our sense of happiness and wholeness yet we rarely explicitly teach young people how to resolve things.’
— Dr Kevin Runions