Relational Aggression in Girls

Deciding when your girl needs you to actively intervene and provide tangible forms of help, versus when you should stand back and let her solve problems herself, is one of the most challenging tasks a parent faces. The recent message that if mothers just listen a little harder or put forth a little more effort, they can reverse relational aggression may lead many women to believe that they should intervene at all costs. This mistaken advice leads parents to feel that they should be able to handle problems single-handedly; it often results in unnecessary guilt and suffering when their efforts don’t work.

In reality, relational aggression is a widespread problem that needs to be tackled by both adults and girls who understand that change is possible. Spreading sensationalized stories of victims and aggressors without offering alternatives for help only condones such behavior and sets up competition for even worse scenarios. No one has to accept these stories as “normal,” nor do parents need to blame themselves for not being able to shield their daughters from RA damage. To guide girls in the principle of confident kindness takes a consistent message from many players in her social life: family, school, peers, and community. Girls also feel secure knowing that, when needed, adults can be counted on to advocate on their behalf.

Stepping in

“Every day I speak with my children (daughters ages eleven, nine, seven; and a son age five) to help them deal with relational aggression. In my eleven years of parenting, I have seen these behaviors begin in preschool, between girl and girl, girl and boy, and boy and boy. Sometime it is between two individuals or in groups. There is eye rolling, secret telling, singling out, ignoring, name-calling, threatening, and even physical aggression.          

Alannah, my oldest daughter, is quiet (until known), sensitive, kind, thoughtful, and polite. I encourage her to speak up for herself and to turn to her teacher or another adult when she needs help. Most days she is too intimidated to do so.          

Amanda and Neva made the entire fourth-grade school year very difficult for Alannah. Alannah was told what to do, where to sit at lunch, and threatened if she didn’t do it. Their behavior, which included swearing and talking about gays and lesbians, made my then ten-year-old daughter uncomfortable. Alannah and I discussed how to cope with the situation or what to do differently next time. I also spent much time in heartache because my child was pulling her eyelashes out at bedtime from stress. I sought information from various sources, including her pediatrician and taught her relaxation and behavior modification to deal with the cruelty. All the while I was thinking, ‘Adolescence hasn’t even occurred yet.’ ”            

One night it was eleven o’clock and I was leaving Alannah’s bedside for the third night in a row. One eyelid maybe had five eyelashes left on it. After being the victim since preschool, she voiced anger and told me how she was going to treat them – she would be the aggressor. Wrong!    

I went to school the following morning. My daughter and I talked to the teacher, the principal was made aware, and a meeting was held with the girls. Alannah discussed her feelings. We talked to the aggressors about the behavior they had been using all year. I learned much from that act. I only wish I had gone earlier. Some children do need parental involvement to handle situations. I wish I had contacted their parents, and I feel teachers should inform parents. That was never done. I later found out that Alannah was this year’s victim, last year it was another girl, and the year before that yet another.

Some girls are more vulnerable than others. My daughters are sensitive, kind people-pleasers much like myself, trying never to hurt someone else’s feelings, regardless of their own, and not wanting to bother the teacher. I am now teaching my children that when a friend is not a friend, it is okay to pull away from that relationship. They should live by the Golden Rule.

-Deborah Labesky, Pennsylvania

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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