Most of us will answer that question with a resounding yes…. then falter. Because sometimes the way girls bully each other look very much the same as what boys might do.
But there is a difference. And it is important to recognise this difference as “girl bullying”, or “relational aggression” (Randall & Bowen, 2008) can sometimes be overlooked and not considered as serious as more overt bullying.
Understanding the difference
Besag (2006) suggests that the jury is still out on whether boys use more verbal aggression than girls, but that girls seem to use less physical aggression. She suggests that research is not clear on why this is the case… and perhaps this is not the question we should be asking.
What I found more enlightening and helpful was her discussion of who girls bully.
Besag (2008) reports that research suggests girls are more likely to bully those who they know and with whom they have a relationship. Conversely, boys are more likely “attack”, or seek power over strangers. Field et al. (2009) support this suggestion.
As these authors report, this is a pattern that is seen in the relationships and play differences between boys and girls. For boys, the activity or what they are playing with, can be more important than who they are playing with. So rather than taking a friend to a game on the playground, they may join a game where they then develop friendships.
For girls, having a “best friend“, and belonging to a group, is more important. Doing things together is important to that relationship – even if the “best friend” changes frequently.
So is Girl Bullying less damaging?
Because girls are so emotionally invested in their relationships (Besag, 2006), the social and psychological effects of relational aggression can be a long-lasting and pervasive as name-calling and physical intimidation.
Here are some of the possible effects as listed by Randall and Bowen:
- Suicidal ideation
- Poor self-esteem
- Feelings of powerlessness
- Inability to trust
- Poor relational skills
- Substance abuse
- Eating disorders
- Homicidal ideation
So why do we hear more about “boy bullying”, especially in the media?
Probably for the same reason we hear more about “boy ADHD” and boys with learning difficulties – their reactions tend to be more visible, the resultant behaviour unable to be ignored (Besag, 2006; Robinson & Dally, 2008).
But the reality is that relational aggression can be more lasting in its effects, and harder to redress due to the emotional investment of the participants (Besag, 2006).
What is relational aggression?
Field et al. (2009) provide a checklist of behaviours associated with relational aggression on p50. These include:
- Dirty looks
- Mean verbal remarks
- Speaking to someone in a cold or hostile tone
- Spreading rumours
- Stealing friends or boyfriends
- Writing nasty notes
Is it really that serious?
In one of the places I worked there was a group of 10-11 year old girls who would sit gossiping about boyfriends.
Then there was Sally*. Sally was a bit different. She didn’t have a “best friend”. And she had mild learning difficulties.
The girls, as they gossiped about relationships, began needling Sally about a boy. Every day it was the same.
But what was even more concerning to me was that a staff member was joining in with the “fun”.
Perhaps she wasn’t aware of Sally’s distress. Perhaps she didn’t notice that Sally was becoming increasingly withdrawn, sometimes hiding away in a quiet corner.
Sally did ask for help, but hadn’t been heard. The seriousness of the situation had been missed.
But why would that be bullying?
Firstly, their comments were derogatory and exclusionary. While involving Sally in their conversations, they were talking “at” her and “about” her rather than “to” her. She had no power in the situation.
Secondly, it was four or five girls against one, creating a further power-imbalance.
Thirdly, it was ongoing, relentless.
Fourthly, it was causing distress.
So it met all the criteria for bullying as defined in anti-bullying policies (see previous post).
So why wasn’t it taken seriously?
Unlike physical harm, emotional and social harm can only be observed by those who are really looking, listening and caring for a child. Being “tuned in” to a child can be difficult if there are distractions, if the child’s reaction is largely withdrawal, or if the child is particularly good at hiding their distress. The child may even defend the bullies, saying “they’re just joking” or “it’s okay” if they fear further reprisals.
I ended up making an unpopular decision to at least temporarily ban “boyfriend/girlfriend” discussions in an attempt to deal with a situation where staff did not see the issue in the same light. This broke the cycle of bullying, and had several positive results.
- Sally could trust me, and felt safer in her environment
- Sally had the opportunity to develop a positive friendship with another girl
- The group girls became more involved in different activities and games, and were temporarily “disbanded” as they broke into couples or threes.
So, girls do bully different to boys. And we need to know this because we need to listen to those sometimes annoying reports of relational conflicts, watch these conflicts closely and act quickly if they fit the criteria for bullying.
Because it is hard to think of anything worse than going through life feeling that you can’t trust anyone.
What do you think?
*Not her real name