Hailey Beach has a website. She also has a Facebook fan page with 617 “likes.” Most 15-year-old girls would be thrilled, but Hailey doesn’t even know about her enviable popularity. On May 7, 2011, Hailey Beach committed suicide. Her fan page, Hope4Hailey, was created by a good friend, Cheyenne Lapke, as an outreach website in memory of Hailey, who was bullied by her “girlfriends” at that critical point in a girl’s life when self-esteem is fragile at best. Her website, Hope4Hailey.org, was built by her cousin, Bruce, in the hope of raising public awareness of bullying and of preventing more teen suicides.
The effects of bullying, in particular girl-on-girl bullying, are far-reaching. Not all victims meet with Hailey’s tragic end, but depression, anguish, and anxiety are common across all instances. As parents, no time is too early to probe the issue, understand it, prepare for it, and deal with it.
What are “mean girls”?
“Mean girls” is a catchphrase used to refer to a distinctive brand of deceptively invisible, yet alarmingly brutal girl-on-girl bullying. The behavior wears many disguises and is delivered at the hands of girls of every shape, size, and color, across a wide range of ages.
There’s a common misconception that bullying is bullying, period, and that there are no differences between the kinds of bullying suffered by young men and young women, but this just isn’t true. There is a marked difference between the kind of physical bullying that goes on between boys and the relational, more covert kinds of aggression that occur between girls—at least, that’s how Natascha Santos sees it.
Santos, a school psychologist in Queens, NY, as well as Adjunct Professor of Psychology at Suffolk County Community College and a behavior therapist at the BioBehavioral Institute, explains that relational aggression refers to verbal and social forms of bullying. These kinds of attack include spreading rumors about a person, intentionally excluding a person from a group, or working to break up others’ friendships.
“Girls basically tend to use relationships to harm each other,” Santos says. “Specifically, girl bullies aim to damage or jeopardize their victims’ social acceptance by peers. Boys tend to engage in more direct, physical forms of bullying, like hitting and punching.”
The act of one boy hitting another boy in a school or group setting can be clearly seen and addressed directly. “When girls create groups that bully through silence and exclusion, this more subtle act is more internal and less easy for others to take action to intervene and guide,” says Diane Renz, a psychologist and counselor based in Boulder, Colorado.
“Mean girls” are black-ops experts of psychological warfare. This doesn’t mean their arsenal of brutality does not inflict serious pain—in fact, quite the contrary.
“If you have ever felt the full impact of silence and exclusion, it is like being kicked in the stomach,” Renz explains. “Actually, the neural activity of social pain is mediated by the same area of the brain that registers physical pain.”
The problem of bullying has garnered considerable attention since the Columbine killings, with an emphasis on boys who experience physical assaults or threats of physical violence. But over the last five years, the widespread arrival of the digital age has moved national focus to the bully’s newest weapons of choice: social media and texting. Much of this new kind of bullying is done by girls, according to Dr. John Duffy, a clinical psychologist, teen expert, and author of The Available Parent: Radical Optimism for Raising Teens and Tweens.
“In my experience, girls are bullying significantly more than they did a decade ago, and they are bullying each other at younger ages,” Duffy says. He adds that the relative anonymity of smart phones and the Internet beckons “mean girls” to treat each other brutally. “One fifteen-year-old girl recently told me, somewhat proudly, that she could ruin a ‘stupid girl’s’ life in five minutes, using only her phone,” Duffy remarks. “She said you just had to tweet a rumor, or text it to a few people, and it will spread on its own.”
The explanation of motivators behind “mean girl” behavior are as diverse as the perpetrators themselves. Renz attributes the disparities between boy and girl bullying to the fact that, from an early age, girls are taught that their anger is not “pretty.” While boys are encouraged to physically vent feelings of anger, girls are chided for the same behavior. Instead, they’re encouraged to express anger and frustration passively.
“There is a cultural norm that keeps girls from directly using their voices and learning about their power,” Renz says. “It is the feeling of lacking—lacking power, self-esteem, etc.—that leads to bullying, and is the outcome of being bullied.”
Eileen Paulus, a former teacher in the Katy Independent School District, traces the roots of bullying behavior to parenting issues. “I always go back to parenting as the problem for a social issue like bullying,” Paulus says. “A bully has a void in her life. Something is missing, so she needs power and control.”
According to family physician, mother of four, and professional parenting speaker Deborah Gilboa, one of the direct contributors to “mean girl” behavior is the common admonition given to all kids, but especially to girls: “Be nice!” She sees this demand as both counter-intuitive and dangerous. Rather than openly expressing anger with another girl, a girl taught to “be nice” will devise alternative means of punishing her target. These “lashings” will not be so easily perceived by adults.
“She may refuse to play a game if that girl joins,” Gilboa says. “She may whisper mean things about her. She may convince all the other girls in the class to wear orange one day and then say to this girl on the orange-day something painful, yet something she can’t get in trouble for, like ‘Oh, I’m so sorry that you didn’t hear that all the girls were wearing orange today!’”
Balancing this scale, “mean girl” victims are also endangered by the “be nice” message. “They don’t feel free to call someone out for bullying or other bad behavior,” Gilboa says. “And they don’t have the confidence to confront ugly feelings head-on.”
Dr. Carole Lieberman, psychiatrist and author, offers yet another explanation of “mean girl” syndrome: the Oedipal triangle. “When girls are 3 to 8 years old, they go through a psychological stage of development, called the Oedipal phase, where they compete with their moms for the love and attention of their dads,” Lieberman explains. “When a family is dysfunctional and the little girl is left feeling enraged that she lost this competition, she becomes a ‘mean girl’ and takes out her rage by bullying other girls.”
Whatever the cause, the effects are the same. Bullying leaves long-lasting psychological scars on both the bully and the victim, Lieberman says: “The bully becomes increasingly aggressive and depressed. The victim feels damaged and expects to be an outcast for the rest of her life.” Because bullying, especially bullying characterized by relational aggression, is so psychologically embedded, Dr. Lieberman stresses that both the bully and the victim should be treated with psychotherapy early on, to ameliorate the effects and the scars.
There are many branches in the complex system of relational aggression. As such, prevention of these kinds of behavior must take a multi-faceted approach. Techniques must be employed to address issues stemming from the bully, the victim, the bystanders, the parents, and even the educators in question.
Preventing the bully from rising: From early in their children’s lives, parents need to establish clear guidelines for how people should and should not relate to one another, then hold themselves and their teens accountable, advises Dr. Wes Crenshaw, a licensed psychologist, in his advice column in The Lawrence Journal World.
“If you find that your daughter (or son) is violating those guidelines, study the situation carefully and comment,” Crenshaw says. “It’s okay to remind kids of the impact they have on the world. If parents don’t do that, who will?”
Crenshaw acknowledges that sometimes the notion of being ethical isn’t a strong enough motivator for teens and tweens. In these cases, he recommends that parents shed some light on the potential implications of bully behavior down the road. “Just remind her that she’s going to be stuck in the same high school for the next couple of years with all those other girls, and after that, maybe one of the local colleges,” Crenshaw said in his column. “There she’ll have to look some of them in the eye and imagine the four-letter word that’s on their minds when [they think about] her.”
If your daughter’s eye-rolls indicate that this tactic isn’t making an impact, Crenshaw suggests discussing what may happen further on in her future. “Some of her peers are going to grow up and be in charge of stuff: schools, companies, social groups, courts, etc. She may need that social network someday,” he counsels. “And won’t that be an awkward moment when her prospective boss looks over her glasses and says in that special voice of knowing power and disdain, ‘Oh…I remember you. We went to high school together.’”
Preventing the victim from succumbing: In her years of teaching, Paulus says she did not witness “mean girl” behavior, but did see instances of catfights and verbal abuse between female students. Still, she understands the risks associated with bullying behavior, and takes strong parental initiative with her own daughter to combat the problem.
“What I am teaching my daughter to do is to use her voice,” Paulus says. “If a girl victim says nothing, then the attacker will continue to do it. A girl needs to have the confidence to voice what she is thinking and feeling.” Paulus says she believes that bullies tend to lash out in order to cope with a lack of self-esteem. For this reason, a bully tends to pick an easy target for her attacks, “someone she knows she can crush.” Because saying nothing tends to perpetuate the problem, Paulus teaches her daughter to “courageously fight back with her words. Then, perhaps, the bully will think twice.”
Preventing the bystander from enabling: As founder of Socratic Parenting LLC, Laurie A. Gray has presented a number of workshops on bullying. She has devised a rule system in her home that acts like a trigger to help stop bullying before it takes root. Whenever girls come over to play or for a sleepover, Gray announces Rule #1: “Have fun, and fun means fun for everyone.” She follows with this explanation: “If you’re not having fun, then you need to let us know, and we’ll find something that’s fun for everyone.” This rule gives the girls a simple, commonly understood tool to use throughout their play. At any point during the gathering, any girl can step up and say, “This isn’t fun for (name). Let’s find something that’s fun for everyone.” Similarly, loud music blasting through the house late at night or destructive behavior in her home can prompt Gray to call upon the rule herself, saying, “This isn’t fun for me as a parent. I’ll help you find something else to do.”
The beauty of Rule #1 is that it extends beyond the immediate gathering and instills itself as naturally-learned behavior at school, on the playground, and in other meeting places. “Rule #1 empowers targets and bystanders to speak up,” Gray says. “Too often, bystanders who feel bad for the target are also relieved that they are not the target, and are afraid of intervening because they don’t want to become the target. A ‘community of kindness’ approach increases positive peer pressure and empowers children to resolve their own conflicts, rather than running to an adult for resolution.”
Preventing the parent from poor role-modeling: Gray also warns parents against the temptation to “bully the bully”—a tactic that only reinforces the message that bullying is an appropriate way to resolve conflicts. What kids take from this type of response is the idea that because they’re still children under adult authority, they’re simply “not…big enough [bullies] yet,” Gray says. She adds this poor role-modeling tends to manifest strongly in a person’s parenting style, and reinforce kids’ bullying behavior: a parental “zero-tolerance” policy can in essence be construed as a bully’s approach to parenting, undermining parental authority when it comes to trying to stop bullying.
Preventing a bully-enabled classroom: As with other influencers, an educator’s role in preventing bullying begins very early on, starting in kindergarten. “It requires a re-education of cultural norms,” Renz explains. She advises that teachers should help to create norms that don’t tolerate exclusion, but rather teach about learning from those who are different. “This can be done [by] creating gathering circles that demonstrate how to dialogue, how to listen, and how to express [thoughts and feelings], as well as [by] teachers and parents modeling in their own [actions] what it means to be inclusive. Kids are not making this up on their own, they see it demonstrated in society, in their homes, and [in] how they are raised.”
Preventing online bullying: When it comes to cyberbullying, kids, parents and teachers have to reach for other methods of prevention. Here are some tips and tools that belong in any such toolbox:
- Family Dinner 2.0: Parents need to incorporate questions and teaching moments about how their kids are living their lives online into daily family life, just as they do with kids’ offline lives. There is still a big gap between how parents “parent” offline versus online; parents tend to neglect to ask even the basic questions “Where are you going?” and “Who are you hanging out with?” as they pertain to their kids’ online activities. As more and more interaction moves into the digital sphere, it becomes more and more critical that parents are aware of what their kids do on the Internet and on their phones.
- SocialShield: This social network monitoring tool scans and analyzes activity across social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Google+, etc., and sends parents alerts if it finds any dangerous or suspicious activity related to their tweens or teens. This allows parents to actively parent their kids online, and makes sure they know whether or not their children are being cyberbullied, or are bullying someone else.
- Take a minute: For girls drawn to the anonymity and distance offered by the Internet, Dr. Wes Crenshaw, a licensed psychologist, offers this advice:
“Now that social media like Facebook and Twitter have given us the ability to put anything out on the Internet at any time, we’ve developed…‘keyboard courage,’ where we say things online that are meaner or more brazen than what we’d say in person. Here’s a hint: Before you hit ‘send’ on that tweet or text, think about the worst possible consequences. Just turn off your cell phone or your computer, go outside, and think. If you can rise above this teenage girl mindset, you will thank yourself down the line.”
Dealing with a Bully Situation
From all accounts, the key to effectively addressing the impact of a bully (or potential bully) is parental involvement. For starters, parents must become and remain vigilant in watching for warning signs of verbal abuse, particularly that which occurs online. Here’s what to look for, as suggested by Patricia Evans, author of Victory Over Verbal Abuse: A Healing Guide to Renewing Your Spirit and Reclaiming Your Life:
- Fear – Does your child suddenly close the [web] page they were looking at when you walk by?
- Anxiety – Is your child nervous, jumpy, or snappish after reading email or going online?
- Self-Criticism – Are you hearing a lot of self-blame when friends don’t call?
- Depression – Have you noticed uncharacteristic signs of sadness or anger after being online?
- Withdrawal – Is your teen becoming reclusive and isolated, refusing to be involved in school or family activities?
These are all signs that could indicate that your child is being bullied. It’s time to dig deeper.
Despite an increase in public awareness of girl bullying, parents can still find it difficult to address the issue of bullying with their teens. Lisa Wray is a public relations coordinator for Harlequin TEEN, publishers of young adult fiction relevant to issues facing teens today. The topic of relational aggression is one with which Wray is keenly familiar. She explains that the parent-teen conversation can be particularly sticky because “mean girls” are often the “most popular [girls] in the school.” To overcome this obstacle (and in addition to talking about the issue with a guidance counselor, friend, or older sibling), Wray thinks it can be helpful for both child and parent to read novels like those in the Harlequin TEEN imprint, so they can gain a better, albeit vicarious, understanding of the kinds of situations teens are facing.
Wray recommends the novel Here Lies Bridget by Paige Harbison. The book portrays how a “mean girl” can rule a school. “It has been described as Mean Girls meets It’s a Wonderful Life,” Wray says, explaining that “the protagonist ‘mean girl’ has an opportunity to walk a mile in the shoes of each person she has hurt.” Wray adds that the author based her “mean girl” character on her own real-life high school self, whom Harbison describes as “much worse” than the novel’s protagonist.
A strong sense of helplessness and anger often settle in once a parent discovers that his or her daughter has been bullied. It’s critical to a bully victim’s progress that these sentiments do not interfere with her own healing. Jenny Craig, author of Weighing Your Options, offers brilliant insight into the power a girl gains through the simple act of forgiveness. According to Craig, research shows that “the chemicals released within the body when forgiveness is implemented can help lift depression; calm anxiety; stop headaches, backaches, belly aches; and much more.” She reasons that when we remain angry or hurt, the chemicals and hormones released can actually make us sick, and reminds her readers of Nelson Mandela’s famous saying: “Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for it to kill your enemy.”
Craig recommends that parents talk with their daughters about the following ideas:
- Forgiveness does not make the hurtful behavior okay. Forgiveness allows you to release the control the experience still has over you.
- Staying angry does not mean that you are protected from being hurt again. Staying angry actually lowers your defenses, making you more prone to get upset or hurt again. Forgiveness allows you to release the hurt that has been holding you back from filling your life with joy and moving on.
- Staying resentful of someone allows them to hold you back from being your greatest self. Releasing them from your life and thoughts sets you free to be who you are.
- Forgiveness shows the other person, yourself, and the world that the obstacles they tried to create were not significant enough to disable you and/or destroy you. Instead, they helped you to grow.
Tools for Forgiveness
- State your intention: “I choose as an act of my free will, regardless of my current feelings, to forgive ______ who has wronged me. I release him/her, and I set myself free to heal. I will no longer dwell on the situation or continue to talk about it. I forgive myself as I forgive him/her. I am grateful for this lesson.”
- Uncover the lesson: Make a list of all the good things that emerged from this experience. Find ten good things that you have learned from having this person in your life.
- Focus on the positive: Think back to the people who helped you during this difficult experience. Allow yourself to experience their kindness and unselfishness. Write down everyone who has helped you through this experience and share your gratitude with them.
Why Girls Shouldn’t Just “Be Nice”
According to Dr. Deborah Gilboa (aka “Dr. G”), the most effective change we can make toward stopping a girl from becoming a “mean girl” is to stop immediately admonishing girls for negative behaviors and start asking them questions.
Here’s how “Dr. G” proposes this can be accomplished:
1. Seek the motive. Redirect the behavior. When a girl calls someone a name or hits, of course we need to send the message that this is a negative behavior. But before we lecture, we need to ask what motivated the girl’s actions. Was she bullied? Is she attempting to stand up for herself or a friend? We can praise her strength and redirect how she uses it. We want to teach girls that we value their strength, that they do get to judge how others treat them, and that we will ask questions and not just reward “niceness.”
2. Analyze movies. Teachers and parents can help girls by watching TV and movies with them and looking for “surface nice but actually mean” girl characters. Engage kids in conversations about this behavior by asking lots of questions and listening to the answers. “Why do you think she acts differently with other girls when there aren’t any grown-ups around?”, “Why do all those girls listen to her when she treats them so badly?”, “Who are the main character’s true friends, and who does she think are her friends? How can you tell the difference?”, and “Do these things happen at your school/Girl Scout troop/youth group/team?” are all questions that can lead to useful, mutually rewarding dialogues.
3. Double-check your perceptions. Compare your perceptions of your daughter’s peers with your daughter’s. If there are girls you think are “nice,” ask what she thinks. Does she put up with some meanness from friends? Why? Does she feel the need to be mean sometimes? Why?
The more we ask and the less we lecture, the more we learn about our daughters’ real lives and social interactions. Then we can better encourage their strength in the face of meanness, and their strength of character to resist being mean.
Statistics: The Down and Dirty on Bullying
Think that bullying is someone else’s problem? Here’s some information that might challenge that notion:
Roy Wooten is Executive Director of Shield-Bearer, a Houston-based nonprofit founded as part of a movement to improve the health of relationships within families, organizations, and communities. Wooten estimates that approximately 15% of the organization’s 4,800 clients last year were bully victims. “All of the bullies we served were prior victims, either from their peers or from family violence,” Wooten says.
- A higher percentage of middle schools reported that student bullying occurred at school daily or at least once a week (39 percent) than did high schools or primary schools (20 percent each).
- Schools with 50 percent or less white student enrollment tend to report fewer incidents of cyberbullying among students than schools with higher percentages of white student enrollment (5% versus 7%-13%).
- Each month, 1 out of every 4 kids will be abused by another youth.
- School bullying statistics surveys show that 77% of students are bullied mentally, verbally, and/or physically.
- Each day, 160,000 students miss school for fear of being bullied.
- School bullying statistics reveal that 43% of students fear harassment in the bathroom at school.
- One in seven students is either a bully or victim.
56% of students have personally witnessed some type of bullying at school.
- 15% of all school absenteeism is directly related to fears of being bullied at school.
- 71% of students report incidents of bullying as a problem at their school.
- One out of 20 students has seen a student with a gun at school.
(Source: “Crime, Violence, Discipline, and Safety in U.S. Public Schools: Findings From the School Survey on Crime and Safety: 2009–10.”)
Editor’s note: last edit July, 2022