Girls Helping Girls

Peer Relations Training for Girls with a Special Focus on "Girl Bullying"

The Girls Helping Girls Program

A growing area of concern in adolescent developmental psychology is that of girl bullying. It is an issue that girls have faced for many years, yet only recently has the issue been brought to the forefront. In the past, most research has focused on bullying that takes place at school between boys. This traditional approach to bullying has not included nor addressed the specific concerns of girl bullying and how this differs from the overtly aggressive behavior of boys. Several books have now been published (e.g. Queen Bees and Wannabees by Roselind Wiseman, 2002; Odd Girl Out by Rachel Simmons, 2002) addressing the topic of girl bullying and the potentially damaging effects this phenomenon may have on young girls in our society.

Both Wiseman (2002) and Simmons (2002) identify a specific type of girl bullying behavior as relational aggression. Relational aggression can be defined as any action that intentionally manipulates relationships in order to cause hurt to another person. It is the reflexive manipulation of dynamics and characteristics of same sex, same age relationships in girls. Relational aggressive behavior is expressed as rumor spreading, socially isolating others, negative body language such as eye-rolling, glaring or ignoring, as well as a host of other subtle, yet powerful manipulations of the dynamics of girl-girl relationships. It can be see in friends’ turning against another girl, someone who may have been a friend yesterday but today is no longer included, is now socially isolated and considered outside of the clique. Popularity and social acceptability become weapons that a single girl or a group of girls use against another in a hurtful, damaging way.

In the past, this type of girl bullying behavior or relational aggression was regarded as a “rite of passage” or a “phase”, something all girls go through and will eventually out grow. Although some girls do appear to be more resilient and less affected by girl-girl bullying, there are many that struggle with their self-esteem, self-confidence, and overall self-concept as a result of relational aggression. And, sometimes girls are defeated in this struggle and are overcome with the complications of low self-esteem such as eating disorders, promiscuity, and substance problems.

In recent years, Dr. Donald Erwin, Clinical Director of the Eating Disorders Program at Monmouth Psychological Associates in central New Jersey, has increasingly seen poignant examples of how girls have been deeply hurt by peers, particularly during their middle school years. In 2000, Kimball Medical Center in Lakewood, New Jersey, in collaboration with the Eating Disorders Program at Monmouth Psychological, sponsored a conference entitled, “The Role of Peer Relationships in the Development of Eating Disorders.” In this conference, girls recovering from eating illnesses who had been victims of relational aggression acted out skits recreating their painful experiences. Through this work, and the clinical experiences of the therapy staff at Monmouth Psychological, the Girls Helping Girls bullying prevention program was developed. The hurt that girls feel at this formative point in their life has been seen in many, many clinical situations to damage self-esteem, putting girls at risk for developmental psychological illnesses such as eating disorders. Parents have also shared information about some of the difficult experiences their daughters have gone through, such as being “devastated” when she was “banished” by a clique or being “dumped” by her best friend for someone in the more “popular” crowd.

Most current research on bullying has focused on boys’ bullying behavior, finding that it is much harder to determine the extent of girl on girl bullying because of its hidden and insidious nature. According to Dr. Dan Olweus, a world renowned leader in research and understanding of bullying behavior, girls were more likely to be exposed to indirect and subtle forms of bullying then direct, physical attacks. He further states that: “bullying by girls is more difficult to discover: Girl bullies typically use less visible, and more “sneaky” means of harassment such as slandering, spreading rumors, and manipulating the friendship relations in the class” (Olweus,1993).

In 2002 the State of New Jersey adopted legislation to address the issues of harassment and bullying prevention in public schools. Under the provisions of this Act all public school districts are required to provide a safe and civil environment where students can learn that is free from harassment, intimidation or bullying. To ensure this safe environment, the school districts are responsible for adopting policies that prohibit all forms of harassment, intimidation or bullying. It further declares that “any gesture or written, verbal or physical act that is reasonably perceived as being motivated either by any actual or perceived characteristic, such as race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, or a mental, physical or sensory handicap, or by any other distinguishing characteristic” can be construed as harassment, intimidation or bullying. (Senate Committee Substitute for Senate, Nos. 149 and 729, State of New Jersey, 210th Legislature, Adopted May 30, 2002). This refers not only to overt aggression, but to indirect, social and relational aggression, as well.

Precedence has been set in the State of Connecticut in 2004 when the Governor’s Prevention Partnership issued its Report of The Girls and Violence Task Force recommending that schools adapt bullying prevention programs to include specific information, activities and peer mediation training regarding typical girls’ relational aggression. The report further suggests that school policies and procedures must include a clear definition of relational aggression, what it encompasses, and alternate disciplinary actions that appropriately address the specific reasons for girls’ aggression.

Simmons stresses that a significant problem occurs when addressing girls’ aggressive behavior due to the lack of a common language that is shared by school personnel, parents and students. As previously stated, girl on girl bullying that involves relational aggression, is by its very nature insidious and hidden; therefore, making it difficult to identify and resolve.

The Girls Helping Girls Program is designed to address girl bullying and identifies 17 main behaviors believed to be at the core of the problem. Each behavior is identified and explained in terms of what is mean, why it is mean and what the student can do to help. By providing a label and description for these behaviors, girls can begin to communicate and remember that (1) these behaviors are considered bullying, (2) these behaviors are mean and hurtful, and (3) there are alternatives to these behaviors. Ultimately, this will begin to change the culture of the school, creating an environment where all bullying behavior, whether it is overt, indirect, social or relational, will not be tolerated.

Once there is a clear definition that is mutually understood within the community, policies can be created that address the specific behavior with appropriate action by providing sanctions against the perpetrator that will not cause further harm to the victim.

The Girls Helping Girls program has been validated with statistically significant results.  For more information, please click here.