Today most of our research about bullying concentrates on boys. Yet a growing problem in our society is girls who bully. Because bullying in the past was defined by physical violence, we are less aware of the bullying tactics of girls, which can appear covert. As a human behavior expert and educator with an Ed.D. and a Ph.D. in Psychology, who has researched this subject since the 1980s, I've noticed that since girls' socialization is less physical than boys', their bullying is more cerebral. Girls are all about relationships and bonding. They connect to one another through shared feelings, whether good or bad, with much more ease than boys. Therefore, their bullying takes on a different texture and has more to do with the intimacy of peer group socialization.
Girls Who Bully
As in all areas psychological, bullying is just an exaggeration of socially acceptable behavior. The profile of the female bully is varied. Often she is someone who is bullied or abused at home and, feeling out of control, imposes her will over others, modeling the behavior of her own family network. However, sometimes the girl who bullies is just into power, domination, and attention, and isn't modeling familial patterns at all.
Further, bullying behavior reflects an immaturity in both coping skills and social interactions, with a lack of empathy as a defining characteristic. Moreover, bullies reach back towards an earlier stage of development where their needs were met narcissistically.
Cyberbullying has become the latest negative tool in the bully's toolbox. Here, the bully can attack, create cliques, gossip, spread rumors, and character-assassinate their target, anonymously. As a result of the anonymity of the Internet, this relational aggression is particularly toxic. Girls are so dependent on relationships that some have been known to go to sleep with their cell phones. So you can imagine how girls feel when they view Facebook pictures of groups they are not included in, parties they have been left out of, and relationships they don't have... never mind being defriended. This kind of trauma can lead to jealousy, feelings of rejection, sadness, depression, and even suicide.
When women bully, and they do, it is often related to both competition and judgment. Judgment offers control and it has the capacity to lead to cruelty. However, this need for control can be a compensation in women for both self-scrutiny and the fear of being seen. The insecurity of believing that our personal flaws may become visible and therefore attacked, creates the all too familiar internal dialogue of criticism, that inner voice from early childhood that answers to our own feelings of unworthiness and low self-esteem.
Bullying's Primitive Roots
It may interest you to know that some of this bullying behavior is rooted in biology. For example, according to Dr. Anne Campbell, our primitive female ancestor had to be competitive to fight for that male who would protect, feed and shelter both she and her young. But she also needed female alliances and sacrificed her own feelings to reach out towards other women as a source of both comfort and safety. Therefore, it is particularly painful to become the target of bullying as it takes away that safety net of relationship from the victim. By withholding emotional support, the bullied woman loses her connection to a perceived source of comfort. This is very destructive and in essence a form of abuse.
Children who observe or experience bullying may believe that grownups no longer behave in this way. Though actually, according to Dr. Cheryl Dellasega, female children who bully often grow into adult women who bully. What happens as female bullies get older is that they become more sophisticated and subtle in the way that they target others. Many times the in-group or cool clique support targeting. This aggressive behavior frightens its members, both girls, as well as women, to go along in order to get along. Further, when women bully they can elevate their own feelings by diminishing those of others, as they gossip, discount, reject, demean and exclude the focus of their enmity. These behaviors sabotage any opportunity for direct, honest and healthy friendship.
It is important to note that not only are the weak targeted but often a girl that is considered to be too pretty, too smart, too nice and therefore making the other girls feel inferior. In fact, bullies may describe a target as "too full of herself." And, because of the competition and striving for popularity as well as positions of power, peer groups may form alliances to cast out and isolate the offending girl.
Parenting Amidst Bullying
One of the reasons parents feel so helpless in dealing with problems of female bullying is because they themselves remember their own feelings of inadequacy and vulnerability, which resurrects fear of rejection and loss of control. As parents connect with their child's pain, they remember and experience their own pain. While their children feel shame and embarrassment for being harassed and bullied, parents feel emotionally vulnerable and unable to solve their children's problem. As a result, parents discount alienation and isolation, as just a stage of childhood, in which peer groups are formed through common interests and personalities. Adults tend to enter into bullying situations when blood is drawn, and the problem becomes physical.
When they really need to address bullying is before it happens. Parents must advocate for their children, validate their feelings and, when necessary, visit with both school authorities and psychological counselors. The lesson here is that parents must strengthen their child's center, their core, at the earliest stages of childhood, so that their child can be resilient and inoculated against the social pressure of peers.
Working Together to Prevent Bullying
Therefore, we need to socialize our children in a deliberate way to be alert to bullying behavior and tactics. Parents and schools should work together from elementary through high school, to teach empathy, collaboration, and healthy mutual social interaction. This can be done through role-playing, role modeling, group therapy, sharing of personal stories, and the empathic process of communication.
Ironically, empathy is the one emotion that can be easily taught, and if anger isn't repressed, it doesn't need to be acted out aggressively. Girls and women can learn to redirect feelings of insecurity and competition by trusting and counting on one another. Girls can and must be taught to value themselves and others and to only enter into relationships with those who share their values mutually. We can teach our girls to mentor and help one another in the safe space of real friendship, if we proactively guide them with empowering strategies and techniques, including how to acknowledge, recognize, and cope with difficult and aggressive relationships.