Coming Clean About Being Mean: Author Probes Hidden Aggression in Girls

By Wenda Reed

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T-FAMILY: Verdana">J. and M. are “alpha girls” – natural, competitive leaders – in a 4- to 5-year-old  class I help teach. Last week, M. pretended to be the “mom” for several other girls. “J. can’t be in the game,” she announced with relish. J. hung her head.

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T-FAMILY: Verdana">Meanwhile, another teacher reprimanded a boy for roughly wrenching a toy airplane away from a smaller boy. The boy was clearly being a bully, but until recently, we might not have paid as much attention to the girls’ behavior. This time I told them it was mean to leave someone out and that we don’t do that here.

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T-FAMILY: Verdana">I’ve been more aware of aggression in girls after meeting Rachel Simmons and reading her books, Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls (Harcourt, 2002) and Odd Girl Speaks Out: Girls Write About Bullies, Cliques, Popularity and Jealousy (Harcourt, 2004).  

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T-FAMILY: Verdana">“We expect girls to be nice, to play by different rules than men,” Simmons told middle school students at Seattle Girls School during her recent book tour. In our society, girls are not allowed to be upset or angry, and they often avoid honest confrontation because they’re afraid of losing friends or being alone, she said. When she asked, “Has anyone in this room ever held anger in?” almost every hand went up.


The anger doesn’t disappear, Simmons says. It comes out in what she calls “alternative” or “hidden” aggression. She outlines three types:

Social aggression attacks another girl’s self-esteem and social position by taking away her friends, telling secrets, convincing others not to like her or spreading rumors to damage her reputation. The Internet has made this more damaging and wide-ranging.

Indirect aggression is hurting someone by making it seem as though a physical injury was “just an accident” or by saying “just kidding” or “no offense” while giving an insult. It can also take the form of spreading rumors anonymously or being nice to a girl around adults, but taking the mask off when the girls are alone.

Relationship aggression is using friendship – or the threat of losing it – as a weapon. It begins in preschool when girls say, “Give me that toy or I won’t be your friend anymore.” As girls get older, it evolves into the “silent treatment” and other non-verbal gestures of exclusion.


For a long time, this type of aggression was dismissed as “that’s just how girls are” or by making catty noises, Simmons told the students. But she and other writers have begun asserting that it causes lasting damage to girls’ self esteem and ability to form life-long relationships and it should be dealt with as firmly as physical bullying is.


In Odd Girl Out, Simmons recounts her own experience of being bullied by another girl when she was a third-grader with pigtails and a lisp. She competed academically with a popular girl named Abby, who one day began whispering to her best friend about her. At dance class after school, Abby convinced all of Simmons’ friends to run away from her. “Into the center’s theater I would sprint after them, winded and frantic, eyes straining in the sudden darkness. Down over rows of slumbering chairs and up on the stage, I would follow the retreating patter of steps and fading peals of laughter,” she wrote.


At the time, she thought she was the only girl to ever feel so alone and so sorrowful. But while attending graduate school in England, she began collecting childhood memories from other women, and discovered how widespread alternative aggression is. Her research among girls ages 10 to 14, when bullying peaks, led to her first book. Her invitation to girls and women to tell their own stories led to the second.


Local Girls Speak Out


Simmons and a panel of three high school girls from Holy Names Academy – Julia, Jenny and Sarah – fielded questions and comments from Seattle Girls School students, which reflected the complexity of girls’ relationships:


 “One day people are friends with me, and one day you’re not popular, and it switches on and off.”

Julia understood this girl’s statement. “It happened to me and I thought it was my fault,” she said. “Later I learned that people who do this are users.” Jenny remembered being some girl’s second choice if her friend’s favorite group didn’t like her that day.


“How can I get my friend Isaac to understand that what happens to girls is just as bad as being beat up?”

Boys don’t “get it” because it isn’t part of their culture, Julia explained. “My brother getting beat up was always considered more important psychologically than the problems of me or my sister.”


“Where were you when you guys were our age?”

The answers reflected girls’ varying experience. Jenny said she was “one of those girls who switched groups a lot,” following the more popular girls. “After a year of that I found friends who wanted to be with me for myself, ” she added. Sarah had a tight group of friends in middle school, and not many issues with bullying. “I had issues,” Julia remembered. “Kids in my school were pretty mean. I got a lot of that ‘just kidding.’ About every three months, I would blow up; then I felt guilty and apologized. I felt worthless. I felt ugly.”


=MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">“When girls have fights, sometimes they never resolve it. It just gets tense. I wonder should I apologize?”

=MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">You should apologize, the older girls said. “But you shouldn’t say sorry if it isn’t something you did,” Julia added. “Apologizing just to get the conflict resolved, isn’t going to help.” Simmons added that in most mature conflicts, everyone has something to apologize for. “No one is perfect and no one can be nice all the time,” she said. “It’s really mature to take responsibility.”

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=MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">“Most of the time when I’m with a group of friends, I feel like I’m being avoided. I confront them and they deny it all the time.”

=MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt"> The most important thing is to remember, “You’re not crazy,” Simmons said. “You have to trust your own version of events.” She suggested being specific in telling friends what they did to hurt her and using “I” messages to ask friends for help.

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=MsoBodyText style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">“You’re surrounded by a bunch of your friends, but you feel like you’re alone, like you shouldn’t be there. Does anyone else feel that way?”

=MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">Yes, the older girls agreed. They assured the middle-schoolers that it really will get better and that the most important thing is to be comfortable with who they are.

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=MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt"> “You’re not the only one,” Simmons assured the girls. “If you think you are the only one, you think it’s your fault. We all feel that way at times.”

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Advice to Parents
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Rachel Simmons joins others – including Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bees and Wannabes  (Three Rivers Press, 2003) and Mary Pipher, author of Reviving Ophelia (Ballantine, 1995) – in promoting education on relational aggression in schools, girls groups and sports teams. Parents can also play an important role in helping their girls, beginning in preschool.


“Before you look for signs (of relational aggression) in your children, look for signs in yourself,” Simmons advises parents. “We may have a blatant desire for our children to be popular. We arrange play dates with the ‘right’ kids.”


Parents transmit what they value and approve to their daughters, she adds. “Children will think they have to have certain friends. They pick up on any anxiety the mother transmits.” We even have to ask ourselves, “Are we practicing exclusion through birthday parties?”


How do we find out if our daughters are being excluded or bullied?


“Notice whether the phone is ringing or has it stopped?” Simmons says. “Has she stopped IM-ing (sending Instant Messages online)? Is there a party she hasn’t been invited to?”


When girls are younger, we can try arranging play dates and noticing if our daughters don’t want to get together with former friends. “Drive the car pool: you’ll hear everything in the back seat. You’ll see if your daughter is a dominator or being dominated.” Finally ask nonintrusive questions “without ceremony or drama.” A general question like, “Do you think there are differences in the ways boys and girls are mean to each other?” might help a girl open up. Introducing the question in the third person can be less personal and threatening.


What if our daughters tell us they’re being bullied or left out?


Simmons gives numerous tips in person and in her books, based on what girls have told her. Among them:


·         Empathize. Actively listen. Hug. Share what happened to us. Don’t dismiss the concerns as “nothing” or “a phase.” Communicate that we “get” the hidden culture of girls’ aggression.

·         At the same time, we should stay calm and not cry in front of our daughters. “It communicates failure when we have too much emotion: girls see their social problems as social failures.”

·         Interview the child to see when and where and with whom the bullying happens. From that, we can brainstorm practical things we might do to help, such as dropping our daughter off early, changing her seat or classroom, arranging a different place for her to have lunch or enrolling her in an activity separate from school.

·         Don’t try to fix their relationships. “Resilience is formed by kids solving their own problems.” We might share, “this worked for me.” We might help them role-play situations with us. It’s usually not helpful to say, “What could you be doing to cause this?”

·         Be nonjudgmental about their social decisions. Don’t say “I never liked that friend of yours anyway” or “why would you want to hang out with those girls?”

·         Clarify that it’s not so much what we say as how we say it. Talk about body language and exclusion.

·         Talk to the teacher or the school or another parent only if our daughters want us to or their welfare is seriously endangered.

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AMILY: Verdana">It’s also important to model constructive conflict at home. “As girls watch us at home they think, ‘How does it feel to get angry? Is it something I should be afraid of?’” Simmons’ books declare that teaching girls to openly confront problems without fear could go a long way to eliminate the cruelty of alternative aggression.


As she told the Seattle Girls School students, “It’s not good to call a girl mean if she tries to be open about a problem.”