Ask An Expert: Why Do Girls Bully?

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Did you know that nearly 74% of girls have bullied someone in the past year? In fact, a new study conducted by Secret Deodorant’s “Mean Stinks” campaign showed that a third of the 1,000 young women surveyed said that they were bullied in the last week.

The campaign, as well as the “Mean Stinks” Facebook community, was created to address the growing need for young women to gain the strength and support to take a stand against bullying. It also encourages those who have done something mean in the past to change their actions – by submitting an apology or sharing a compliment. Since its launch in February, the community has grown to over 170,000 strong.

In order to develop these online resources, Secret tapped an expert – Rachel Simmons, NYT’s best-selling author of “Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls.” And this week, ModernMom had the chance to get an exclusive interview with Simmons, who is one of the country’s foremost experts on this major social problem. Check out the first half below, and you can read the second part here.

ModernMom: How do you define bullying among women? What is it?

Rachel Simmons: Bullying among women and girls is usually characterized by more psychological aggression. Girls and women usually understand that a “good girl” is not supposed to use her fists; she’s supposed to use her words, or supposed to find another way. For that reason, girls and women get better at hiding their aggression, which is one of the reasons why technology is such a powerful weapon, because it lets women and girls hide from their targets and even, in some ways, from themselves.

Females tend to engage in what’s called “relational aggression,” or the use of friendship as a weapon, disproportionately. Because women and girls are under pressure to be nice and kind and caregivers, it means that their aggression is more likely to go underground, and it’s also more likely to stew and fester before it comes out. And again, there’s pressure from the culture to be nice all the time and to repress what you really feel and think, but a lot of women and girls don’t even have the skills to assert their strongest feelings. They’re not comfortable saying what’s really going on for them and their relationships. When feelings fester, they then explode, and that’s one of the reasons why we see bullying happen.

MM: Why do we bully?

RS: There are so many reasons why people bully. The first reason is family background. If you grew up in a house where violence is prevalent, then children are scripted early on to use violence as a way to get what they want. And by violence I don’t only mean physical force, but I also mean the “silent treatment.” So if a mother stops speaking to her daughter when she’s upset with her, the daughter learns to do the same when she gets upset with someone else.
Another reason could actually be biological. Some children are simply born with more of a drive to become aggressive and to claim power, and if they’re not channeled to find positive outlets for that, they will use their power in negative ways. I always say to girls, “There are superheroes that use their power for good and for evil – you have to decide how you want to use your power.”

One other reason that people bully, as I said earlier, is that if they don’t know how to manage their strongest feelings. If you don’t know how to tell your friend “I need you to stop doing this” or “I felt hurt when you changed our plans at the last minute so you could hang out with your boyfriend,” those feelings do become explosive. I think so much of bullying happens because people just don’t have the right tools to express their feelings. And that’s one of the reasons I am partnering with Mean Stinks, because they are creating a platform at the place where girls pay the most attention (Facebook) to give them the tools that they need.

MM: How does bullying change between grade school, college and beyond?

RS: One of the biggest myths is that bullying is a middle school problem. It actually begins as early as 3 years old. In a nursery school class, a girl might say to another child, “If you don’t do what I want, I won’t be your friend anymore, you can’t come to my birthday party, you can’t sit with me at lunch.” And that is the beginning of relational aggression.

When girls are little, they’re much fiercer. They’re much more willing to speak their minds and say “she was mean to me” or “I’m mad at you.” But as they go into middle school, their aggression tends to go underground. Groups start to form and what begins as “I’m not going to be your friend anymore” can turn into “I’m going to make everyone you know not be your friend anymore.” The aggression becomes more sophisticated, because the girls get smarter, and so the damage runs deeper. Middle school is also when most girls start using computers, smart phones and other gadgets, so this is when we begin to see technology and social media being used to cyber-bully.

As girls get into high school and college, the behavior can become much more embedded in friendships, so that the bullying can happen within a sorority or among a really tight knit group of friends. This is one thing that really distinguishes girls’ aggression from guys’ – a lot of it happens in close knit friendship circles. So when you are bullied, particularly in college and you’re on your own for the first time away from your family, it’s isolating and painful in a way that it may never have been before when you always got to go home to mom and dad.

Want to know how to deal with bullying? Stay tuned! Tomorrow we’ll be posting Part 2 of ModernMom’s interview with Rachel Simmons -“How Do We Break The Bullying Cycle?
 

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