Relational Aggression: Change the Relational Aggression Way of Life
To truly make the world a better place for girls, the next generation of young women needs to learn to connect in positive ways with peers. By discovering their own inner strength and using it as a basis to both create a new culture and support others, girls can make relational aggression (RA) a nonissue. This is easy to write about, but very hard to accomplish. In the words of one therapist, "It will take decades for our efforts now to pay off."
RA thrives because girls lack the courage or confidence to act in ways that end the dynamic and because they believe it is just a part, of the adolescent experience to be endured. As adults we too often accept behaviors because we believe they are just part of growing up. Consider alternatives, and give a girl the self-esteem, confidence, and attitude of kindness that will give her strength to defuse an aggressor, support a victim, or mobilize bystanders. Ask girls, "What behaviors could substitute for aggressive or passive behaviors?" The following examples, all from girls who were asked to identify ways to end aggression, include giving compliments, changing the subject, being kind, switching to positive gossip, asking the aggressor to stop, focusing on internal attributes, and using affirmations.
Sometimes just raising a girl's awareness that she can change goes a long way toward rechanneling aggression, as seventeen-year-old Tanya discovered. Tanya, pretty and self-assured, crosses her legs in the lotus position and hugs her sweater around her as she talks. For the last eighteen months she has been part of the Ophelia Sister Project in Warren, Pennsylvania. When asked what prompted her to take part in the activities designed to help teenage girls deal with relational aggression and bullying, her expression changes.
"I was mean," she says, eyes suddenly dropping to focus on the floor. Regret is etched across her face as she reflects back on her behavior prior to becoming involved in the project. "I would start rumors about other girls, even my friends. A group of us almost made a game of it." It's hard to believe that a young woman who volunteers to teach middle school girls about forming healthy relationships with one another could ever have used such hurtful behavior, but her story is painfully familiar.
"Seventh grade was the absolute worst. I was in the guidance counselor's office every day for doing something mean. She would try and get me to talk to the other girls, to see their side of things. I would always be polite in her office, and for a while I would act nice, but then it would all start over again. You wouldn't believe how mean I was."
Tanya pauses, fidgeting with her hair, and obviously uneasy about remembering the way she used to be. Her blue eyes are pained as she continues her story.
"Then I got involved with Ophelia. The very first day of our training some older girls started talking about how girls are mean to each other, and they could have been describing me. I was so uncomfortable sitting in that room, seeing my behaviors—or ones a lot like them—acted out. But the worst part was the next day, when one of the girls I tormented stood up and talked about how much people hurt her. She didn't accuse me in particular, but she was crying because she was so upset. That made me want to cry too. I was so ashamed I couldn't even look at anyone else."
Tanya's distress was still close to the surface, eighteen months later. However, since she joined a group of adult women and girls dedicated to ending relational aggression, her talking about other girls in a malicious way seems to be a thing of the past, along with her feelings of low self-esteem. She and her peers have learned a way to feel better about themselves and enjoy their relationships with other girls more. Confident kindness, rather than cruelty, is the guiding principle of their behavior.
"My friends still talk about other girls, but I just say stop!" Tanya concludes. "Most times they back down. If they don't, I actually stick up for the girl they are talking about, and then it usually stops. I just hope the girls I tormented have forgiven me, I know it's hard for me to forgive myself."
Girls themselves can often identify the best ways of changing perspectives, including the use of humor.
Catch girls being kind and supportive of one another and compliment them on it. In the Cool to Be Kind Club, started by a concerned mother in Warren, Pennsylvania, acts of kindness are rewarded. Students are given pencils that say "I was caught being kind" when do something positive for another. At home or in the classroom, a one-day activity for younger girls that introduces this concept is handing out poker chips for kind behaviors. At the end of the day, the person with most chips gets special recognition and a small prize. Reinforcing positive behaviors, rather than focusing on negative ones, is a basic parenting practice most of us have used intuitively with our children as toddlers; it works with teens too. For older girls, high school awards that recognize community service, positive attitudes, and best motivators accomplish this same purpose.
Help girls develop coping skills that do not involve others, such as listening to music, exercising, and keeping a journal. Dr. Nicole Werner, a developmental psychologist at Washington State University, suggest that adolescent preoccupation with relationships can create a breeding ground for RA. When girls rehash peer conflicts over and over again with others, they may be more likely to retaliate with aggression. She suggests that parents can help girls curb this tendency by limiting telephone or computer time and substituting other activities.
Help Her Establish Relationship Boundaries
Sometimes the desire for friend's leads a girl to forsake her own values in the quest for acceptance. While the question "If you friends jumped off a bridge, would you too?" often provokes rebellion, exploring what your girl would do in the name of friendship will give you both tremendous insight into her "relationship IQ."
This is important, because a girl who has no sense of self during adolescence can grow into a woman who continues to form unhealthy relationships throughout life. Identify specific behaviors that are unhealthy; allowing someone else to control your decisions; allowing someone to be verbally disrespectful to you, harass you, or threaten you. Help your girl determine where the line is that she will not cross, and reinforce her determination to stick to her principles.
Through my eyes, Lauren was my best friend. I loved her as much as a friend could ever love her best friend. We did everything together, and I told her everything.
The summer before ninth grade, Lauren invited me to go to the mall with her and a few other friends from school. I was so excited; I called off work and woke up early. She told me that she would call before she came to get me. Around noon I started to worry that she had never called. I thought she may be running a little late, so I called her. To my surprise her father answered and notified me that she had already left for the mall.
I was so mad. When I confronted her, her response was, "You were never invited anyway."
Episodes like that happened all the time; to me that was just how Lauren was. After every little incident, I just shoved it in the back of my mind, thinking nothing of it. A few weeks into the school year, a very personal secret was being passed around my school, a secret that only my best friend would have known. I was so hurt to find out she was talking about me and also to know that this wasn't the first time. When I confronted her, her response was that she had never told anyone, but I knew she was lying. After that, I lost all respect for her.
I figured out that friends don't hurt each other. I never thought our friendship would end, especially like that.
Sarah, age 15, Pennsylvania
Empower Girls to Problem-Solve
When given the encouragement to use their own creativity in problem solving and conflict resolution, girls can amaze you. Consider what happened when third- and fourth-grade teachers in Warren, Pennsylvania, asked the Ophelia Project for help in combating RA. Senior girls developed an intervention that involved role playing and reading The Brand New Kid by Katie Couric (Doubleday, 2000) to students. Not content to merely respond to problems, these impressive young women went on to place a "Dear Ophelia" suggestion box in the school cafeteria and are planning a play to raise awareness among their peers.
Help Girls Explore a New Way of Relating to Peers
This is especially crucial given the pressing developmental issues associated with identity during adolescence. As one high school volunteer in the Ophelia Project says, "The RA program really helped me figure out who I was and what was really important to me. Before that all I cared about was being accepted by other people. I didn't really take the time to figure out who I was or what I needed. I also found out that you're probably going to hurt other people if you are not happy with yourself.
"In eighth grade I got super depressed, "recalls a middle school girl. "I think that is when I quit caring about everything. I decided I wanted to be myself and I was tired of being fake, I couldn't stand it, I couldn't take it any longer. I was like, well, I will just be myself… and now I have even more friends.
When asked why some girls are never involved with RA, one middle school girl commented, "Because they know they are fine the way they are. They really don't find any reason to go make fun of someone or get into fights because they are just happy the way they are." If girls can find healthy ways to explore and become comfortable with who they are, they will be free to have positive, supportive relationships with one another.
Reframe Hurtful Behaviors
Certainly not every cruel behavior can or should be over-looked. However, young women who are secure in themselves are freed from the obsessive need to be liked by everyone. They also understand that aggression comes from a place of insecurity and fear; they can often "disarm" potential tormentors by not allowing their verbal arrows to hit a target. Some girls are naturally capable of such self-confident behavior, while others can learn to react confidently through preparing, processing, and practicing.
A mom whose daughter has been targeted might propose these questions, once the initial comforting has taken place: If this happens again, what might you do differently? What would have happened if you had ignored her? Can we walk through another situation and figure out how you could try to ignore aggression?
Repeat, Repeat, Repeat
To truly change the way girls think, it isn't enough for moms to preach the message of confident kindness. Girls need to hear the same words from dads and other influential adults in their lives. Bulletin boards and theme activities in school can help remind them that it is far cooler to be kind than cruel. At home, never stop telling her that RA is wrong. You can even help her develop some affirmations that get this same idea across, which can be posted in places she frequents to help reinforce positive behaviors and boost self-esteem.
Change the Environment
As extreme as it may seem, sometimes the best options for dealing with prolonged RA is to make dramatic changes in the girl's environment, as shared in the following story.
People always say that beauty is on the inside, but I've yet to meet these people. My life is like many others in middle school, a living hell! And it's mostly girls that make my life miserable. It has nothing to do with who I am as a person; it has everything to do with the way I look.
When I was ten, my teeth grew in crooked. I went to an orthodontist who said that my jaw was too small for my teeth, so he would widen it and then put on braces. I went through all these treatments and had braces on and off before fifth grade was even over, but within a few months my teeth were crooked again. Obviously I got teased about this. The latest news from the orthodontist is that the final braces will go on next month.
My teeth aren't the only target. My eyebrows practically meet; I've been called unibrow and even owl. I started electrolysis last year but it's a long process. I've been harassed so many times because of my eyebrows, I thought I could rise above it.
In seventh grade I was redistricted to a new school and was looking forward to being with friends from elementary school, but the competition is unbelievable! I'm not talking about winning boyfriends either! Everything is about popularity. If you don't have it, showing up at school is almost like attempting suicide. Between classes I would always hang my head low so no one could tell it was me! And unlike elementary school, I don't have many friends in middle school, so life is tough.
I guess at times like this you turn to family for support, but my parents have been divorced since I was in kindergarten and my sister moved out a couple of years ago, so it's just me and my mom. During spring break I told her I wanted to be homeschooled. Even though my mom wasn't sure about it, she supported me, changed her work hours and agreed to it.
Basically I fled the scene so I wouldn't be depressed anymore. While I wouldn't recommend running away like this (really wish I had been able to cope with school), things have begun to turn around for me. Even my family has admitted this was the right decision.
To all the girls out there with the same problem, don't run away. Do whatever you have to do before you decide to leave. In middle school life can be rough, especially when other girls turn on you! They brag, tease,and bully you for different reasons. It's one of the toughest things you'll ever have to deal with in school--maybe even in life.
Justine, middle schooler, Florida
This young lady's story is made all the more poignant by the stunning black-and-white picture of herself she enclosed with her story, depicting an attractive girl with a well-proportioned jaw and perfect eyebrows.
Discuss Unconditional Positive Acceptance and Forgiveness
Girls who feel confident about themselves can approach others with the same attitude. Expressing acceptance and being able to forgive a hurt are two ways a girl can use her personal strength to defuse RA.
OUT OF THE IN CROWD
"Kristin, can I have a tissue?" I remember the way his sneering smile asked the question.
"What? Why would I have a tissue?" I stared back, trying to make sense of the words just asked. Before I fully understood exactly what was happening, I heard laughter erupt from behind me. I turned to see the faces of two of the most popular girls in the seventh grade, girls whom I wished to be, look, and act like, girls who I had always wished would pay attention to me, befriend me, or make me one of their own.
The words spread: "Kristin stuffs her bra, that's why her boobs look so much bigger this year." "I heard she uses a whole box of tissues every morning." "What a loser! There are other ways to get guys to look at you."
I couldn't believe what I was hearing. It was true my chest had inflated considerably over the summer, two whole sizes to be exact, but not from a box of Kleenexes. Instead it was the normal thing called growing up, or perhaps, as my mother had so delicately put it, that summer I had "blossomed." I spent the rest of the day shuffling through the halls with my head down to avoid the stares and comments whispered just loud enough for me to hear as I walked past.
Returning home, I ran to the one person who was always there to make me feel beautiful—my mother. She held me and let me cry, telling me that I was perfect and what did I care what they thought anyway. But that was exactly the problem—I did care. I wanted everyone to think I was beautiful. I wanted to be accepted for who I was and what I looked like, I wanted to be just like those girls who had laughed at me.
I never knew exactly why they started that rumor about me. Perhaps they really thought I did stuff my bra; perhaps they were jealous that I was one of the few girls who actually needed the bra they were wearing; perhaps I was just another target in their own search for self-discovery. Whatever the reason, they had brought me down. Years later I asked one of the girls about it. Her head hung as she remembered her awful words and listened to my account of that day.
I hope my experiences and stories will help other girls realize the effects of their actions as well as make many of the victims realize they are not alone. Perhaps my influence can play a small role in putting an end to girls hurting each other. It's a good thing I was never exactly accepted by the in crowd. I would not be the strong, independent woman that I am today if I had been.
Kristin Blake, age 17, Pennsylvania
Talk About the Role of Boys in Girl-Girl Conflict
Girls learn early on to value relationships with boys over relationships with girls. Too often aggression between girls occurs because of a boy. A classic example is the girl who goes out with her best friend's boyfriend, either before or after the best friend and boyfriend have broken up. Long after the young man has gone his merry way, the girls who were formerly friends continue to dislike and aggress against each other. As one of the counselors at Camp Ophelia quizzed during a role play of this scenario, "What's wrong with this picture?"
Encourage girls to think about the dynamics of friendship when a romance is involved. Separate out who is responsible for what: Should a girl alone be blamed for going out with friend's boyfriend, or are both equally culpable? How should a girl handle situations where a friend's boyfriend flirts with her or asks her out? When does a romantic interest override a friendship? What is the best way to share information about a budding romance with a friend, when she has formerly been involved with the same boy?
Used with permission from the book Girl Wars: 12 Strategies That Will End Female Bullying by Cheryl Dellasega, Ph.D. and Charisse Nixon, Ph.D. (Fireside).
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