Girls Just Wanna Be Mean

Girls Who Bully

Medically Reviewed by Charlotte E. Grayson Mathis, MD on August 26, 2002
4 min read

"They made it seem like something good, like an invitation or something," she says. "They were smiling. I opened it and it was written in all different colors of inks and handwriting, saying we don't want to be your friend, don't look at us, don't call us, don't come near us. Everyone put it a different way -- they all wrote it."

It still hurts like fire to remember the incident. "Sticks and stones can hurt for a lifetime," nods Phyllis Chesler, MD, a retired professor of psychology at City University in New York and author of Woman's Inhumanity to Woman.

Time was, the word bully applied to boys who stole lunch money from their weaker classmates. But increasingly, researchers are finding that girls are becoming frighteningly adept at "relational aggression." This is the term professionals use to describe the Byzantine ways girls use gossip, innuendo, social leverage, and court intrigue as ruthless as the Medici for entertainment and social advantage. The kids call it "outcasting."

According to a report titled "Hostile Hallways" issued by the American Association of University Women, 76% of students have experienced non-physical harassment and 58% have experienced the physical variety. This treatment can even push students to suicide in extreme cases. There has been at least one case in Canada. On the reverse side, in a study in Scandinavia, 60% of those classified as bullies went on to collect at least one criminal conviction.

Are female bullies disadvantaged losers trying to boost their self-esteem? Quite the contrary, according to Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence and founder of The Empower Program, a 13-year-old organization to help boys and girls defend themselves. "Often it's girls with high self-esteem who are mean to others," Wiseman says.

"It's the cute, popular girls who do this," Kelsey agrees. "They do it because they can, not because they need to."

Chesler says it may be that the outcast girl is different in some way, maybe even because she was elected to class office or made cheerleader. "She won't have time to emotionally groom the others, so she's out." Not being able to afford the "in" designers or shoes can tarnish a girl. "There are so many rules in school, unwritten rules, anyone is bound to break some. It's easy to make a mistake," Wiseman says.

"If a girl is being bullied and no one is speaking to her, she may ask a friend, 'Are you mad?' and the friend will say no, though clearly something is wrong," says Wiseman.

How did Kelsey finally make it through school? "I sort of walked in between," she says. "I was friends with the geeks, skaters, gangsters, stoners, jocks, and those background people. You know -- the ones you see in class but don't know."

Hey, mom and dad, did you know all this was going on? And school is just starting!

According to Wiseman, many parents never learn the bullying is going on. Their kids may simply become quiet or depressed or refuse to go to school. Others think kids need to work these situations out for themselves.

Chesler suggests parents warn girls ahead of time that this could happen -- and probably will. "Kids need to know this can break their heart, but it isn't their fault, they didn't do anything wrong."

Jean Spaulding, MD, a professor of psychiatry at Duke University in Durham, N.C., suggests parents talk with their daughters alone in the car. "Ask about specific friends," she suggests. "'How's Molly these days? What's Sarah up to?" See how the child reacts. If she says, 'Molly's mean,' Molly may be bullying your child."

If this happens, network with other parents, Spaulding urges. Then, go to the school, the teacher, and the counselor to see if this can be handled. Maybe role-playing in class. "Teachers cannot allow this to go on," Spaulding says.

In Kelsey's case, she was crying in the bathroom and her religion teacher came in, put an arm around her, and slipped a tightly folded note into her hand. Later, she opened it: "The whole world is not against you," it read, signed with a smiley face. "I still have that note," Kelsey says.

On the reverse, your child may be doing the bullying. Wiseman also suggests keeping an ear open in the car. Some warning signs your child may be relationally aggressive:

  • Having a party and wanting to exclude certain kids.
  • Negative comments, "She's lame."
  • Gossiping about a girl who's not present. "Those shoes!"
  • A friend is no longer mentioned or calls.

"If a parent comes to you and says your child is being a bully," Spaulding says, "check out the story at school before talking to the child. Then say, 'They told me at school that you have been having arguments with other girls. What's that all about?'" Most of these bullying girls who do it for sport need counseling, Spaulding adds.

"It's a great chance to make an ethical point in a context the child will understand," Wiseman says. "Don't you want to raise an ethical child?"