When a parent thinks about bullying they may think of bloody noses, knuckle sandwiches and loud name-calling—the kinds of activities that dominate the world of boys. But there's another brand of bullying experienced by girls, and though it tends to be quieter and more subtle, it is nonetheless just as painful.
This type of bullying is directly related to the societal pressures that girls experience, says Simone Marean, MEd, Chief Operating Officer of the Girls Leadership Institute. The program, which she and Rachel Simmons, author of Odd Girl Out, direct, teaches confidence-building and leadership skills through a series of workshops and camps throughout the year. Marean says these skills are important because many girls don't speak out about how they feel, instead trying to be the stereotypical “Good Girl” who is nurturing, caring and sweet.
Marean says while this pressure can bring out many great qualities in girls, it can also drive emotions, thoughts and feelings underground. “A 'Good Girl' is happy, everybody likes her,” she says. “But, when someone does something to upset her she's not taught as a girl how to handle that thought or feeling.” Marean says when girls stop recognizing their feelings they begin to deny them until, eventually, they are no longer able to articulate them.
So, instead of a young girl being able to face her feelings enough to tell her friend, “When you didn't invite me to your birthday party I was hurt,” she instead gives the silent treatment, writes a nasty note, or rallies the power of her own group of friends. And that, says Marean, is the kind of culture that breeds bullying.
Another side-effect of the Good Girl culture is that girls have a difficult time talking about their intrinsic talents. In workshops, Marean says when prompted girls can say “I'm a good friend,” but when asked to name something that doesn't have to do with helping others, they have trouble because they don't want to appear conceited. “It's important that girls look at themselves apart from their connectedness to be able to make a decision that's separate from other people,” she says. Not having the ability to state your opinion in the face of opposition often leads to the gang mentality common in bullying situations.
So, what should parents do if they think that their daughter is bullying or being bullied? Marean says most parents first reaction is to get on the phone and call the school or the other child's mom. If a parent senses there is a safety issue, then an immediate call to an administrator is in order, she says, “but this should be the last step.” First, she says, parents should help their daughter stay in touch with her feelings during this difficult time by opening dialogue such as, “Wow, it must be hard not to be invited to your friends party.” The short-term band aid of smoothing feathers over the phone won't instill confidence and emotional intelligence—important skills towards healthy conflict resolution, Marean says.
The good news is that girls can develop these characteristics at home, with the support of their family. How can parents facilitate this? Marean gives these ideas:
- Role Model. Marean says this is the most powerful thing a parent can do. Let your daughter see you handle conflict, speak about how you feel, and admit your mistakes. “When your daughter sees you own up to your mistakes, she is much more likely to do that with her friends, and that means she isn't trapped in the cycle of having to be perfect and covering up mistakes,” she says.
- Give Her Permission for Difficult Feelings in the Home. Rather than feeding into the temptation to smooth all her ruffled feathers, let her get upset. Even if it means slamming the door, it's important that she realize conflict is a part of life that doesn't need to be hidden.
- Practice Inside Feelings. Inside feelings are the ones we usually don't share openly (jealousy, embarrassment, hurt) and outside feelings are ones we show (anger, rage). Marean says it's important for girls to understand the difference between the two and how, while inside feelings are often more difficult to talk about, they help to preserve friendships.
- Practice “I” statements. Marean says the home should be a place where children can learn how to practice communicating during conflict. And that goes for adults, too. It's the difference between saying “You're so ungrateful” and “I feel used when you ask me to drive you everywhere.”
- Encourage Role-play. Though this can be awkward, it can be a valuable tool for helping your daughter deal with conflict confidently and honestly. If your daughter is facing a difficult conversation with her friend, let her practice, with you pretending to be the friend. Marean suggests asking questions like “How could you start this conversation? What might you say to her? How might your friend react?”
- Make Your Home a Put-Down Free Zone. When anyone in your house uses language to put themselves down from “I'm bad at math” to “I look terrible in this” family members signal the violation, either with a whistle or with a code word. Just be ready when your daughter starts calling you out! Similarly, when someone makes a joke that is offensive, Marean suggests her students say, “That's my NJZ” which stands for No Joke Zone. When that code word is used, the other person has to simply apologize and change the subject.
Marean says these techniques help teach girls to be resilient, which is an essential part of dealing with bullying. “It's not that you want a daughter that will never have problems. That's not realistic. But you want to teach her to be emotionally intact in order to manage them.”
For more information on the Girls Leadership Institute, go to: www.girlsleadership.org
For more information on bullying, check out our Bullying Special Edition.