Power in the playground
Most young girls will be the victim or perpetrator, to some extent, of so-called ‘mean girl’ behaviour. It can be one of the most destructive influences during adolescence, when trusting friendships and a sense of belonging are vital. In an ideal world, teaching the values of empathy, diversity and respect would be high on every school’s priority list. In the real world, lip-service is paid to such things and anti-bullying policies continue to gather dust in filing cabinet drawers. So, how best can we support our young people in the hope that something positive can be gleaned from being the victim of this insidious form of behaviour?
Relational aggression — to give it its Sunday name — is often dismissed as ‘girls being girls’ or ‘a normal part of growing up’, with very little support or even basic understanding and empathy offered to those involved. However, its harmful effects are anything but normal and can result in its victims — and even its perpetrators — struggling throughout their lives with issues such as low self-esteem, eating disorders, anxiety and depression.
Of course, young people of any gender can experience bullying, but research shows that this particular type of behaviour is more prevalent amongst females than males. In Linda Stade’s recent article, ‘Girls and their Frenemies’, she describes how young girls are emotionally hurt through damage — or the threat of damage — to friendships, social acceptance and peer group inclusion, and she explains how the victims of this ‘emotional slap in the face’ are left feeling confused, distraught, lonely and ashamed.
The perpetrators of relational aggression are very clever and use the most horrible arsenal of weapons — such as ignoring, teasing, gossiping, hostile body language, rumour-spreading, insults and — possibly the most effective and hurtful of all — manipulative affection. Before the advent of social media, going home after school provided some degree of respite from the torment, but every moment of every day is now accessible, which makes it much more difficult for victims to find any kind of quiet space to retreat to. It’s basically all about gaining power through exclusion, where someone who was once a friend and integral part of a group is turned into a social ‘undesirable’. The rank and file of the group fall into distinct archetypes, as described in Rosalind Wiseman’s ‘Queen Bees and Wannabes’. The Queen Bee is in charge, in complete control (often with something as simple as ‘a withering look’), being manipulatively affectionate (‘I’ll be your friend again if you…’), cynical and demanding loyalty from all around her. Swarming underneath is a ‘substrata of wannabes’ who will do whatever it takes to impress their Queen and hold her favour. It’s a form of bullying that’s incredibly difficult to see. Fifteen years ago the co-author of Bullycide, Tim Fields, said ‘both genders bully, but girls are better at it; they’re more switched on to the nuances of social interaction and use psychological forms that are harder to detect and easier to deny — and they can do that with a smile.’
The group of girls who ignore their ‘friend’, stop inviting her out, run away from her, whisper in front of her, taunt her and tease her can just as easily turn on the charm when they suspect they’re being watched. Indeed, the piece de resistance in the armoury of the perpetrators of relational aggression is the skill involved in keeping their bullying behaviours concealed.
Sadly, when a victim does find the courage to speak out — usually to a parent or teacher — they’re often left feeling even more isolated by not having their feelings validated. Not being believed, or having the issue trivialised with such responses as ‘they’re not worth bothering about’, or, ‘why don’t you just find some new friends?’, and being made to feel like they themselves are to blame by being told they’re ‘over sensitive’ or they ‘take things too seriously’ often adds to the devastating impact that being a victim is already having on their lives.
It is power and control that keep the heart of every relationally aggressive group beating. So, if a victim can find the strength — from within themselves — to break free from the control that the group has over them, they might not feel any less sad or lonely when they’re around the group, but they will feel empowered by the courage it took to ‘go it alone’, to stand up to the teasing, to forge new friendships and to do the things they want to do rather than the things that Queen Bee might tell them to do to keep them ‘in with the group’.
How they find that power isn’t an easy process. It’s painful, takes time and — in amongst everything else that a young person has to contend with — can feel overwhelming. But with support from parents and other carers it is possible. And, the resulting strength and belief in themselves should forge a more positive path for their future where they’ll be much less likely to follow the crowd, and much more likely to have the confidence — even when it feels unpredictable and frightening — to do the things they want to do, without giving credence to their critics and cynics. So, how best can we support someone who’s being dealt this most painful of emotional slaps? The first thing is to look out for changes in behaviour and mood. Changes in the way an adolescent’s behaving isn’t always down to ‘hormones’! Remind them that you’re there for them, and that you have time (or you’ll make time) to listen. And do make sure they know they can trust you, that they can speak to you in confidence. If you create a safe enough space for someone they’ll come. Don’t try to push. As hard as that might feel, especially when it’s your own child that looks so sad and lonely. Remember, this is about helping them to feel empowered — if you pester, forcing your ‘help’ on them, you’re taking control. Let them know they can trust you — but also let them know that they’re the one who’s calling the shots.
When they do open up and confide in you, do make sure you do give them time — uninterrupted time. Put your phone away, don’t fret about making the dinner, cancel the keep-fit class and give them your full, undivided attention.
Then really listen. Don’t overreact by telling them it’s the worst thing that ever could’ve happened. Don’t trivialise by telling them it’ll all blow over. Don’t lay blame on them by asking them what they’ve done to make their friends treat them like this. Don’t tell them they’re being over-sensitive. And don’t tell them you’re going to do something about it. Unless you fear for their safety, don’t intervene. Not yet and not ever unless it becomes absolutely necessary. Showing that you understand and giving your uninterrupted time and undivided attention validates their experience and is likely to make them feel less isolated and stronger. Make it clear that you hear them, you’re beside them, and you’ll hold them while they’re brave enough to expose their pain and shame to you. Tell them how awful it sounds, to feel like that and be treated that way. But also make it clear that they’re in control of how things should move forward.
Helping them understand that they can’t control other people’s behaviour — but they can control their own response to that behaviour is so important. Are there any responses they can think of that might make them feel a little less helpless? This is going to be different for different people and will depend on the circumstances around their own situation. But, for example: if the group are whispering and giggling, how would it feel to make eye contact and smile, instead of looking down to the ground? If the group run away, how would it feel to look for something else to do or someone else to be with, instead of trying to run after them or standing doing nothing alone?
Scary. That’s probably how it’ll feel. But maybe, just maybe, do-able…? There are other things you can suggest: discovering and pursuing new interests or skills is an effective way of rebuilding self-esteem and meeting new friends; keeping a diary helps with the processing of thoughts and feelings; exercising helps to relieve stress and anxiety. Of course, none of these things ‘fix’ the situation, but they can make the situation feel easier to cope with.
Sometimes it is necessary to intervene, to speak to the school or to the parents of the aggressors — but there is never any guarantee that the situation will improve. In fact, the opposite might be the case. Without hard evidence, parents of the aggressors are likely to turn the ‘blame’ onto the victim, finding it difficult to accept or believe that their own child would behave in such a mean way. And, even the most empathic of teachers struggles to witness incidents of bullying disguised as friendship. The covert and manipulative nature of the relationally aggressive’s behaviour, in fact, often means that the Queen Bee not only controls the favour of her group of friends, but also the favour of her teachers and other parents.
The outcome for the victim is likely to be much better when they themselves take control. They’ll suffer all of those feelings of loss that go hand in hand with being cast aside from a group of friends. But, the resilience they’ll develop when they find the courage to stand up and move on should stand them in good stead for the future. Learning that they have the power to carve their own path might just give them the confidence to follow their dreams, rather than the flock. And, they’ll be much less likely to ever let anyone intimidate them again into being anything other than their unique and fantastic selves.
Originally published at www.thelifecyclistdiaries.com on October 19, 2016.