Erik Fisher, PhD
I think we all have begun to see a disturbing trend in recent years. More and more often we are seeing girls bullying girls, but not like it used to be. Historically, girls have not been immune to bullying, but the way they approached it was typically through manipulation, name calling, getting other girls to not be friends with a girl, or even making up very painful stories about a girl.
What we are seeing now is that bullying is becoming much more aggressive and physical. All across the country, more and more stories are surfacing about brutal types of bullying among girls. Research is showing that bullying behavior with girls is on the rise since the 1990s.
Why are we seeing these trends in girls with aggressive bullying? As the school year begins, it is important, as a parent, to be aware of what your children are facing and be in a position to help them through their challenges. I will discuss some of these issues in this brief article.
The Good, the Bad, and the Bully
So why are more aggressive types of bullying with girls on the rise in the last 20 years? I think that in part it is due to societal changes and the way we view power. Our world is based on what I call a control-based model of power. Many of us are informally taught four dichotomies that we live by: Good/Bad, Right/Wrong, Strong/Weak, Win/Lose.
Classically, girls have been socialized to be good, which in most circumstances means surrendering looking strong to get approval from those in power who would judge the person as being good and obedient. These young “good girls” would then grow up to be “good wives” and often live in the shadow of their husband, unfortunately never challenging for power and often not truly feeling fulfilled.
Because girls and women were not socialized to be strong, they would not directly challenge others to be strong, because they were more focused on gaining acceptance, so their behavior would often be expressed in passive-aggressive and/or more manipulative way. That would allow them to express their power over others while also looking good. Bullying occurred in girls in the past, but it was not as obvious, and girls/women who played the game well were often able to avoid having to face consequences for their actions, because they could coyly play innocent.
In the last 40 years, the playing field has changed, literally. Women have moved into the board room and onto the ball field. More and more, little girls are being encouraged to compete on the same playing field as men in sports, academics, and in the workplace. The effects of this are subtle and obvious.
Whereas boys and men were socialized into the win-at-all-costs mentality, girls and women are falling into the same belief system more than ever. Remember that if you look strong, you increase your chance of winning. Then you, as the winner, define what is good and right. Girls are learning this more and more, and because they want to look strong, they have to find their strength through whatever means they can.
If one looks at these situations where girls are more aggressively bullying, like boys, it can happen in almost a pack mentality, and because others are doing it, it seems to make it more acceptable. There is a safety in numbers and inside every bully (persecutor) is someone who once felt like a victim, and therefore someone who lives feeling fear. There are also your lone girl bullies, and whether or not the bully is alone or with a pack, they still feel a great deal of inadequacy and don’t know where they fit in, so they have to force their way into believing that they have power over others.
Girls Will Be Girls?
It is crucial that we look at our society collectively, if we are going to change this trend. So many people want to point to “human nature” in promoting certain behaviors and the idea that boys will be boys, but these are not boys. This IS a direct result of culture and socialization. It is not that these girls need to change--we all need to change. I look at the parents that turn the collective eye to their own children who behave this way and shake my head. How can you let this happen? What don’t you want to see? Please have the courage to look at yourself and your child, and see what you have contributed to creating.
Temperament, or our innate approach to the world, is often talked about in developmental psychology. Temperament contributes to how we respond to new situations, persist in when challenged, as well as many other features, and I include an innate approach to power. In my hierarchical view of power, I talk about four dichotomies: good/bad, right/wring, strong/weak, and win/lose. I believe that kids are often born looking at the world through one or more of these dichotomies. While we may have temperamental tendencies that we are born with, I would have to say that bullies are made, not born that way. For example, some kids are born wanting to look strong, but it does not mean that they will end up to be bullies if they are taught to use their strength in “good and right” ways. That is where parenting and society come into play. We have the power to foster a more cooperative and productive use of power in boys and girls.
We have to help teach all of our children to learn to find their power within ourselves, not from other people. As we are teaching girls “girl power,” we must teach them healthy ways to find it.
About the Author: Erik Fisher, PhD, aka Dr. E…, is a licensed psychologist and author who has been featured on NBC, CBS, FOX and CNN. Visit him at www.DrEPresents.com to learn more about his books "The Art of Empowered Parenting" and "The Art of Managing Everyday Conflict," or to check out his blog.