2016-06-30
Rachel Simmons, 29, author of two books on girl bullying, has been on both sides of the playground fence: "I was both a bully and someone who was bullied. In particular my experience being bullied really stuck with me and hurt me. It was something that remained unresolved for me." Years later, while researching her book, Odd Girl Out, she got in touch with the girl she had bullied--and apologized. Simmons speaks to student groups and works with the Empower Program, which gives workshops around the country on preventing school violence. She spoke with Beliefnet about "expanding people's understanding of adolescent aggression-it's not just the stocky boy in the schoolyard who is going to kick your butt for your lunch money."

How do girls bully, and how is it different from the ways boys do it?

I want to avoid overgeneralizing, because there are boys who behave in the ways that I'll describe as the province of girls and vice versa. But it does appear that girls are less inclined to become physical and instead employ subtle, indirect, or relational forms of aggression. Relational aggression meaning you use your relationship as a weapon to get what you want. Around age three a kid says, "You give me that toy or I won't be your friend anymore." So you threaten to take away the relationship in order to compel someone to do something for you.

And then it can become more sophisticated-like instead of just taking away your relationship from someone, you can get other people to do that too. Girls also will be very secretive about their aggression and will be very hesitant to take responsibility for something. Even if you watch them doing it, they will deny to the death that they did something mean.

Is that because girls want to appear nice?

Yes, it's because girls are socialized to behave in this kind of way that is sort of physically and emotionally impossible-that is to behave like perfect little angels all the time. Of course, nobody is like that. So it forces them to take their aggression underground, but also to behave in very duplicitous ways-to appear on the outside as very sweet and nice. Of course, that's why the meanest girl in the presence of adults often acts like the sweetest, most charming person ever. As you can imagine, it complicates the process of reprimanding.

Why do adults believe that it's just not happening?

Most parents are in denial about their kids.

Which-either doing it or being victims?

Particularly doing it. The thing about moms in particular is they're very quick to identify that their child has been a victim. Just like they themselves are quick to say, "I'm the victim." But what they're not quick to say is, "I'm a perpetrator" or "My child is the perpetrator."

Yes, I can see that would be really hard to admit.

It's important to consider this issue in its cultural context-that good girls are nice girls. And if you're not nice, there is something wrong with you. You are deviant.

The bullying itself is really a sign of a couple of different things: one is that girls are not entitled to express their aggression in a direct way. In many ways the culture makes it immoral for females to be angry in a direct way. So what winds up happening is there are some girls and women, especially in the South, who actually believe that when you go behind somebody's back, that's the nice way to do it. Or, to say it with a smile-you know, do something really nasty with a smile.

The second thing is that aggression, especially in children is a reality. These are young creatures who are still developing their identities, whose emotions are often crude and passionate-look at the adolescent, for whom every day is the best day or the worst day of her life.

You wrote about bullying that happens in the electronic world-by email or IM-that this is sort of a new way that bullying takes place.

The internet is the perfect medium for a population that is both afraid of communicating directly and often unable to.

I see what you're saying. Because it's not face-to-face.

If you either cannot or don't feel entitled to say something face-to-face, well then, of course you'll go online. The trouble is, when you aren't looking someone in the eye, the severity of the incidents becomes much, much worse.

Can you give me an example of something that might happen on Instant Message?

Just things that you say to people that you would never say to their face like, "you're a fat, ugly whore." Or taking something that somebody tells you and emailing it to everyone you know, just throwing it out for instant gratification. The kinds of things that you say become a lot different.

The other major point here is that parents just seem completely ignorant about what's going on. You have this image of the child who runs home, gets a snack, runs upstairs, gets online and closes the door. Most parents mistakenly believe that the two primary concerns or threats to their children online are sexual predators and pornography. Well, that's not true. These interactive technologies that kids use are very powerful in their hands and have become kind of free-for-all. You know, they're just kind of a proving ground very often for social power and often social cruelty.

What can parents do, ban IM or the internet or email?

Well, I think that IM needs to be curtailed. What happens is that the internet becomes an extension of the lunchroom or an extension of the playground. So that for girls, being in the know is a really important thing-you what to know what's up, you want to know what's going on. So a lot of kids waste a lot of time sitting there online just because they feel like they need to be in the know about who's talking about what, what major crisis is going on, who's fighting.

It's just a colossal waste of their time. So, I think that, yeah, it should be curtailed, just the way TV is often curtailed.

I think that parents need to have conversations with their child about the rules-ethics, values of online participation. And this is not a conversation that most people have had.

The other conversation that parents don't have is about bullying. How can you talk about that without telling your child, "You're a bad, mean person?" Don't you have to be careful in that sense too?

Not really. In telling your child that aggression is wrong, you don't want to be cutting off their access to conflicts-to healthy, assertive conflicts. There is a difference. If you communicate to your child that any time she is not nice, this is inappropriate and unladylike and not going to be tolerated, then you're not going to eliminate the aggression, you're just going to drive it underground.

So what would you suggest would be the best way of helping your child see that what she's doing is wrong? Let's say your child isn't the ringleader but is going along with things. How does she protect herself from also being victimized?

First of all I wouldn't assume that they know it's wrong. I think that's actually a mistake that a lot of people make. Because you have to remember that when girls act in these ways, the going attitude is, "Well, that's just how girls are." So the end result of that of course is girls don't really grow up being told, "This is really wrong and there are consequences.

Secondly, I think that girls need to be actively guided in being assertive: they need to be rewarded when they are assertive in the right ways. If you have a child who is a bystander, for example, then maybe you need to role-play with your child about different things that she can do, or not do.

I think one of the mistakes that parents make is they become very judgmental of their kids. If your daughter starts hanging out with the fast crowd and you see that she is enabling really bad behavior, then these parents sort of rail at their daughters and say, "I don't know why you are hanging out with those people. How could you do that? They're so awful." Well, of course your daughter is not going to respond to that. They're her friends. If she doesn't hang out with them she doesn't have friends.

Let's say your child is victimized-is it a good idea for her to tell the teacher or the guidance counselor?

I think it depends if this is somebody that you trust.

Aren't they trustworthy people?

They are certainly well-intentioned, but they don't necessarily know what to do. For example, a 12-year-old could go to a teacher and say, "This is what's happening to me-please don't say anything to the girls," and that teacher will disregard what the kid is saying and go right to the girls. I don't think that that teacher is untrustworthy, but would I want to say anything to her? No. I don't think it's fair to idealize teachers and guidance counselors.

But we're saying schools should intervene.

I definitely think schools should intervene, and I definitely think people should report incidents of aggression. I'm just saying be careful. Be really clear about what you want and what you don't want.

Can a 12-year-old girl be clear on what she wants and what she doesn't want? Shouldn't the adult have experience and know more how to handle these things?

Well, of course they should, but often they don't.

One of the questions I am very often asked is "My daughter is in this very abusive relationship with this girl, and I want her to get out of it, but every time I try to say something, she gets mad at me and says, `Leave me alone, Mom.'" I say, imagine that you the adult, your best female friend is in a relationship with a guy that you think is a total schmuck. What do you say to her? You say, "Gosh, you're such a great woman. Why are you hanging out with this guy? I have so many other people I could introduce you to. I know you're strong enough to move beyond this." You don't say, "I can't believe you're hanging out with this person. What is your problem? I don't understand who raised you."

Right.

Moreover, when you do say all those nice things, the best friend doesn't then go, "Oh great, thanks!" and pick up the phone and break up with her boyfriend. She does it when she is ready. And that's what I mean about working with your child as opposed to talking at her. A lot of parents struggle with it. You'll often see very assertive moms with daughters who they think, "Is this my child? Haven't I raised her better than this?" And I think a lot of parents fail to see that it takes time for kids to grow and to really internalize those lessons.

Have you noticed that often girls who are picked on don't become more empathetic but when their turn is over, they turn around and pick on other girls?

For sure. It's like the law of the jungle. The hardest thing in the world is to get somebody to stand up and say, "No, I am not going to tolerate this. I don't want you to treat this person in this way. I am not going to go along with this." It's the hardest thing in the world because a lot of girls relate conflicts with everyone abandoning them. If you stand up to somebody you're going to lose all your friends. They are not going to go do that. Nothing is worth that. And no amount of good parenting is going to make that an OK thing for a kid to do.

It's the million dollar question: How can you get a kid to stand up and put a stop to it. It's impossible because it's just how their social structure works.

That's why I don't think that we're going to stop this behavior. But do I think we need to start educating kids about what's wrong with it? Yes. And to stop saying, "Oh, this is just how girls are," that it's a phase. It's not a phase. It lasts their whole lives. They behave like this as adults, we know. And it's inappropriate-it's an unhealthy way to express themselves.

The Columbine-type reaction to bullying seems to have gotten a lot of publicity. It doesn't sound like this is something that girls would plan. Schools are in terror that kids will plan some kind of retaliation or revenge.

There is an adage in local news, "If it bleeds, it leads." We value, as a culture, a certain kind of aggression as serious and deserving of attention and other kinds of aggression don't really count. So if somebody threatens to kill somebody or hits them, that's a problem. But if somebody destroys someone spiritually over a period of months and just bascially reduces that child to a pile of ash, well, that's just "how girls are."

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