‘When I was eight years old, I was bullied by another girl. I remember very little about that year…The sorrow was overwhelming…This is what I remember most.’
This is the introduction of Rachel Simmons’ ‘Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls’.
It’s a familiar story.
Over the last (almost) four decades of teaching and counselling in schools, I have become acutely aware of the debilitating effect that girls’ bullying can have on the wellbeing and resilience of girls.
Rather than simply identified as ‘bullying’, these days the distinctive and destructive behaviours used by girls to intimidate, manipulate and control each other are known as Female Relational Aggression (or FRA).
FRA behaviours are different to the overt physical and verbal behaviours that seem to typify boys’ conflict. Typically, FRA behaviours are covert and usually emanate from within the friendship group.
Quote Simmons, ‘…girls fight with body language and relationships’.
The friendship becomes the weapon. This is what erodes girls’ resilience.
Girls see FRA. Adults rarely do. Girls are devastated by it. Adults are reductive.
‘Don’t be sensitive.’
‘Just ignore it.’
‘Go play with someone else.’
‘Stand up to her.’
Although it can be difficult for adults to detect, FRA is real. It is psychologically devastating for the target(s).
For the adults trying to unravel, support and assist, it’s like peeling an onion. Targets can simultaneously be bullies. Bullies can simultaneously be targets. This is why FRA is so complex.
Our first responsibility as adults caring for young girls is to recognise FRA and understand how psychologically damaging it can be. In her book, Simmons identifies three sub-categories of FRA.
1. Relational Aggression
Relational Aggression includes ‘acts that harm others through damage (or threat of damage) to relationships or feelings of acceptance, friendship or group inclusion.’
These are the behaviours that use the friendship with the target as the weapon itself. For example, ignoring or excluding someone to punish them, giving them ‘the silent treatment’, using negative body language such as a turning of the back or shoulder with the intention to exclude or facial expressions (eye rolling, mean looks and stares that signal ‘I hate you’).
2. Indirect Aggression
Indirect Aggression are behaviours that use others as weapons, allowing the perpetrator to avoid confronting the target as though she had never had an intention to hurt or inflict psychological pain.
Rumours, whispers, gossip, playing the messenger between bully and target, hunting in packs, ‘liking’ on social media are all examples of indirectly aggressive behaviours.
3. Social Aggression
Social Aggression includes use of relational and/or indirect aggression with the intention of damaging the target’s self-esteem or social status within the group.
Our second responsibility as adults caring for girls is to help them to build resilience by equipping them with strategies that will empower them to not only ‘cope with’ mean girl behaviours, but to thrive even when their ‘friends’ are using them.
We’ll explore these strategies in our next article. In the meantime, awareness of FRA is a crucial step to understanding girls’ social dynamics.
Libby Barnes is a teacher, counsellor, Master in Student Welfare and Guidance and Resilience Builders facilitator.