Mean Girls: Why Girls Bully and How to Stop Them
Researchers are gaining more and more insights into what drives girl bullies -- and why they so desperately need help.
When I was in seventh grade, Helen arrived in my New England town. We locals
had never seen anything like her. She was from New Jersey. She wore hip-hugger
bell-bottoms, knew sexy line dances, smoked cigarettes, and had actually kissed
She was also mean. She befriended me initially -- perhaps because I lived
next door and she needed a friend. But once she realized I was a shy bookworm,
she dropped me. Then she laughed at my clothes (in my face) and started rumors
about me (behind my back).
Eventually I learned to ignore her. But the pain of her rejection haunted me
for years. It even made me distrustful of "girl groups" long into
The topic of girl bullying is not new. Dozens of lay books and scholarly
journals have explored the ways "relational aggression -- tactics such as
exclusion, rumor mongering, and Internet harassment -- can damage girls'
self-esteem. But only recently have researchers begun looking at what bullying
does to the bullies themselves. The news is not good.
The Impact of Bullying
In the short term, girl bullies often are rejected by peers and lack
meaningful relationships, notes Charisse Nixon, PhD, co-author of Girl Wars:
12 Strategies That Will End Female Bullying and an assistant professor of
developmental psychology at Pennsylvania State University in Erie.
In the long term, "these girls learn to manipulate people like chess
pieces," Nixon says. "Unfortunately, this can harm their ability to have
meaningful relationships and successful careers."
Some characteristics of a girl bully are jealousy, feelings of superiority,
poor impulse control, and lack of empathy. Nixon believes girls bully when
their basic needs of "ABCs, and me" -- acceptance (by self), belonging (among
others), control, and meaningful existence -- are thwarted. "These needs apply
to everyone," she notes, "children and adults." People will do what they need
to do to get those needs met.
Whatever the cause of bullying, researchers are now focusing on prevention
-- including counseling to get at the root of the need to bully; teaching
healthy communication skills; and introducing schoolwide antibullying
What should you do if your daughter is accused of being a bully?
Psychologist Charisse Nixon, PhD, offers these tips and advises seeking
counseling if the behavior continues.
Discuss perspective. "Developmentally, adolescents often have no idea
how their behavior hurts others."
Model healthy ways of dealing with conflict. "As grown-ups we
are often unconscious of the ways we ourselves bully, like the way we gossip
behind people's backs. But girls pick up on all that," says Nixon.
Make sure her basic needs are being met. These include acceptance and
a sense of belonging. "If she's not getting what she needs, she'll find a
destructive way to cope."
No antibullying programs -- or even caring adults -- existed to help my
tormentor, Helen, who, I realized later, was having a hard time herself. She
had just moved to a new school and her parents were divorced. No doubt she put
me down to give her own social standing a leg up. It's a shame she had no