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Sugar and Spice?

For girls, the worst bullies are often their best friends. Long aware of the symptoms of social aggression, educators are now trying to find the ingredients for a cure.

By Cindy Long

It was still dark outside when Danielle, a ninth-grader from a Philadelphia suburb, woke up surrounded by giggling and whispering girls. She was at a sleepover—a party she’d been looking forward to. Some of the girls held magic markers, others held tubes of paint. Two or three gripped camera phones. While she slept, the girls had squeezed paint into her hair and scribbled on her face, then snapped pictures of their handiwork. By the following Monday, the pictures had circulated to most of her classmates. If students didn’t receive them by e-mail or see them on the Internet, they found them pasted in the hallways throughout the school. Danielle was humiliated.

“I didn’t want to go back to school,” she says. “I couldn’t wait for the weekends. That was the only time there was nobody making fun of me. It was like, wherever I went, they knew—on the bus, at lunch, everywhere. My teachers couldn’t help me. All they did was let me leave a few minutes early from class so I could get to the next class without being teased in the hallways.”

For weeks, Danielle ate lunch alone in the library or in the nurse’s office, too ashamed to sit by herself in the cafeteria and face more harassment. “It was scary, frustrating, upsetting, and puzzling, because you’re wondering why [you’re] the one they have a problem with.” Normally, an upbeat, talkative teenager surrounded by girlfriends, Danielle began to withdraw, becoming quiet, depressed, and watchful. A victim of social aggression, the psychological wounds hurt as much, or even more deeply, as if she were punched in the face.

There are girls like Danielle at every school—girls who slink through the hallways with their heads down, trying to be invisible, hoping that some other girl will be singled out. Some argue that every girl is like Danielle at some point in her academic career. What woman doesn’t recall the sting of being snubbed by the popular girls? Or worse, by her so-called friends? The difference is that, back then, there wasn’t a name for the psychological torture girls can sometimes put each other through.

With the publication of Odd Girl Out by bestselling author Rachel Simmons and Queen Bees and Wannabes by Rosalind Wiseman, the  notion of social or relational aggression—the psychological warfare practiced by many school-age girls—has been brought to light. And more educators are beginning to do something about it in schools nationwide. By helping address conflict in overt, healthy ways, they’re helping create more confident, assertive girls who are better students and better people.

"Children and adolescents break each other’s hearts with social aggression, and they tell us they often do it right in their classrooms and that their teachers don’t know," says Marion K. Underwood, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Dallas and author of Social Aggression Among Girls. But, she adds, "I believe teachers know vastly more than children give them credit for and are in an ideal position to intervene, both directly and in more subtle ways."

If they don’t, they aren’t creating a culture of learning, says Wiseman. If educators don’t understand the rules, relationships, and power structures of "Girl World," she says, "no matter how good they are as teachers, they won’t be in control of the classroom and learning." Simmons agrees, likening the teachers in such classrooms to those in the Peanuts cartoons, where students hear nothing from the teacher but a muffled "Mwha, mwha, mwwhhaaa."

Veronica: I just killed my best friend. JD: Worst enemy. Veronica: Same difference. Heathers, 1989

On a frigid February afternoon in New York, seventh- and eighth-graders from an Upper West Side prep school filed into the auditorium to hear Simmons talk about social aggression. A more sophisticated bunch of kids than most, it could be a tough crowd. She dove right in with a personal story.

“When I was 8 years old, my friend Abby started whispering secrets about me,” Simmons began. “Abby told all the girls to run away from me whenever I came near, but, desperate for their friendship, I kept running after them. Soon, I had no friends at all, and I was eating lunch alone every day.”

Despite her anguish as a third-grade victim, Simmons told the students she’d become a bully by the time she was 14. “I did something to a friend that I was very sorry about. Years later, I finally apologized—apologies don’t expire—and that helped us both. But the point is, even though we’re supposed to be so sweet and innocent, not everyone is nice all of the time.”

Simmons walked up to the front of the stage and looked around. “I know you guys aren’t nice to each other all of the time,” she said matter-of-factly.

The auditorium fell quiet. Finally, a few nervous laughs and students shifting in their seats broke the silence. Simmons acknowledged that it’s not comfortable for people to accept that they’ve been mean, but friends who engage in social aggression are, in fact, bullies. “You probably think of a bully as that short, fat guy on the playground who’s bald with a hairy chest even though he’s only in fifth grade, but the fact is, the most hurtful bullies can be your own friends—people who are nice to you sometimes, but can make you feel small inside on a regular basis,” she said. “This kind of bullying leads to the loss or damage of friendships, and that hurts us the most.”

Later that day, Simmons spoke to the school’s faculty about how to handle social aggression. For years, educators who noticed girls bullying each other would shrug, figuring, “that’s just the way they are at this age.” But if educators don’t call aggression or bullying by their proper names, Simmons explained, then the perpetrators live above the law and victims have no recourse.

“Girls’ psychological health and leadership potential are related to their relationships,” said Simmons. “We need to help them with social learning, help them become better at speaking their minds directly, and give them an alternative to bullying. If they tell you they didn’t know their actions were mean, expand their knowledge of aggression, and be clear about what’s acceptable and what’s not.”

In Queen Bees and Wannabes, the inspiration for the movie Mean Girls , Wiseman takes the reader into “Girl World,” where the power of cliques is absolute and the rules of the popular must be followed. Nonconformists are kicked out of the group and subjected to the vicious, soul-crushing social aggression that damages self-esteem and ruins social status. Research has shown, however, that the targets aren’t the only ones who suffer. The bullies themselves, who win friends mainly through fear and intimidation, aren’t genuinely well-liked and often have low self-esteem. By addressing the problem of social aggression, educators can help curb the long-term effects on the victims as well as the perpetrators, such as depression, substance abuse, and even suicide.

Cady: I think I’m going to join the Matheletes. Regina: No! No, no. You cannot do that. That is social suicide. DAMN! You are so lucky to have us to guide you! Mean Girls, 2004

After the girls at the slumber party turned on Danielle, she turned inward, but she’s an articulate girl who’s mature for her age. Rather than let the experience destroy her, she’s learning from it. She figures the girls who are bullies “find someone who is vulnerable and pick on them. They do it to make themselves feel better about what’s going on inside of them,” she says. “In my school, there are always people who are pushing others around, thinking they are the best and thinking they have no rules but their own.”

And that, of course, is where educators should come into play. In Danielle’s case, it took longer to get her teachers’ attention than she would have liked. In art class, for instance, she’d sculpted a shoe from clay, then painted, glazed, and fired it, only to have her former friends smash it on the floor. Her teacher only noticed after Danielle’s project was late.

Most educators, however, are aware of the problem, and some, like Sarah Hawley, have strategies they employ for dealing with it. “I have a group of girls in my class who torment, threaten, and otherwise terrorize each other and other students in the class,” says Hawley, who teaches sixth grade in Richmond, Indiana. “It takes up too much of our time and makes me more frustrated than I let on.”

With the help of a part-time counselor, Hawley has set up an anti-bullying campaign as a way to channel the negative energy in a positive way. Designed as an education and awareness-raising campaign, the program is student-led. Participants speak to other classes about bullying, design and hang posters about recognizing signs of bullying, and work as peer mentors. One of the most successful elements of the campaign is a weekly question-and-answer session. Each classroom is equipped with a box in which students can drop anonymous questions about bullying. The anti-bullying campaign leaders answer them—with the help of the school guidance counselor—every week in a five-minute loudspeaker announcement. 

"So far the program has led to some really positive discussions," Hawley says. "I have noticed that the students are feeling more empowered to speak out and speak up."

Like Hawley, other teachers often elicit the help of school guidance counselors for strategies to handle social aggression. Peggy Rubens, an elementary school counselor in Seattle, Washington, started a program called Creative Crossings to help preteens and parents navigate the potholed road of adolescence. She also leads a workshop for educators and students called “We Hate Sarah: Games and Activities to Initiate the Discussion of Girls Harassing Other Girls.” The workshop is usually booked well in advance, an indication that educators and parents struggle with this issue.

"One of my favorite strategies is changing the language of hate. Instead, I teach girls to use the phrase ‘Connect, Disconnect, and Reconnect,’" Rubens says. "It’s much less abrasive than ‘hate,’ and is a better description of what’s really happening."

To illustrate the ups and downs of friendships, Rubens has the kids draw roller coasters, identifying the point when the ride is connected with the ground, when it’s flying wildly up into the air, and when it careens downward once again. That way, the kids get a visual of their friendship patterns.

“It really hits home,” Rubens says. “They’ll look at the roller coasters and say, ‘Wow! Somebody finally understands how this friendship feels to me.’”

Another of Rubens’ activities, borrowed from Queen Bees and Wannabes , is called “Take The High Road,” an acting activity in which students are assigned different characters and brainstorm choices each character would make to improve a bad friendship situation and choices that would make it worse. The purpose is to teach students that they have choices, but it also teaches empathy.

“When you put the characters and all their choices out on display, you can see from the other person’s perspective what is really going on,” says Amanda, a Seattle sixth-grader who participated in the activity with her classmates.

Rubens also has students play the “Lawyer Game,” in which students plot out mean behaviors on a four-part continuum—just joking; this is mean, but she deserves it; this is mean, and nobody deserves it; and, finally, this is harassment. The students are asked to play lawyers and debate their positions convincingly—if they feel the girl deserves the mean behavior, they must prove it.

All of Rubens’ activities teach girls that it’s sometimes OK to get angry and engage in conflict, and that it’s not uncommon or unfeminine to do so. It’s one of many empowering messages she hopes to convey to other students around the country by taking her “We Hate Sarah” workshop on the road. 

Dawn: Why do you hate me? Lolita: Because you're ugly. Welcome to the Doll House, 1995

“Although it’s much easier to spot physical aggression, social aggression is just as harmful, and if educators don’t intervene, they condone the behavior, putting the healthy social development of girls at grave risk,” she says.

Rubens knows this firsthand. She was the victim of social aggression as a preteen, and she remembers the pain vividly. “We didn’t have a guidance counselor, and I think it would have been helpful to have someone at school to help me see the bigger picture and help ease the tension,” she says.

Even today, Rubens grapples with the memory of her schoolgirl bullies. “I still, on some level, fear my friends will turn their backs on me. I’ve even had several dreams about it,” she admits. At times, those fears enter her waking life. “One day, I arrived at work to find that someone had put colorful Easter egg cards and candies in all the teachers’ boxes,” she recalls. “Perhaps because I was the sole Jewish employee, my box was empty. But I found myself practically in tears—not because of the thoughtless act, but because it brought back a very old feeling that perhaps people were talking behind my back and I was being left out with a mean intention. So I guess you could say that on some level, I am haunted by the bullies of my past.”

 The ghosts of former schoolmate bullies likely stalk the corners of many women’s memories, but educators also encounter them in the flesh in school bullies-turned-parent bullies. In her latest book, Queen Bee Moms and Kingpin Dads, Wiseman writes about how even the most well-adjusted and mature adults are faced with contemporary bullies. Teachers in particular, Wiseman says, are targeted by bully parents.

Educators "continually have their integrity questioned and their competence questioned," she says, “And even though teachers are so busy...they have parents demanding to speak them 'right now!' or in extreme cases, even threatening lawsuits over a concern about their child."

Wiseman devotes an entire chapter to helping parents work with teachers, but the main message is that adults must reject bullying behaviors and become positive models for their kids. If they don’t, child bullies could grow up to be adult bullies.

Some victims of bullying, like Danielle from Pennsylvania, will grow up to be more cautious and less trusting adults. "I’ve learned that you can’t trust friends, even your best friend, with all of your secrets," she says. "It's a tough situation, with always having to watch what you say and knowing that this will never stop because it happens all through life. But, maybe it’s easier because then you know what’s coming for you."

Danielle wants to be a guidance counselor when she grows up, so she can help other girls. "I wouldn’t make the girls avoid each other, but bring them together to talk about their problems," she says. "I’d get the parents involved so they’re informed, and I’d put the girls together in groups for projects so they learn to behave and are more aware of each other. They probably won’t want to. But I think it can help."

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