Friday, April 29, 2011

Mean Girls/Relational Aggression: A Primer

This post was originally written for the website Summit Series for Families.

If you have ever seen the movie Mean Girls, then you are probably familiar with the term. Some of the mean girl behavior shown in that movie is portrayed accurately, but alas, the movie ties the story up in a pretty bow at the end, and that is rarely how it happens in real life.

Mean girl behavior is called relational aggression, a term coined by Dr. Nicki Crick. Relational aggression is a form of bullying that uses relationships in order to hurt someone. Relational aggression can include such behaviors as social exclusion and rejection and spreading gossip and rumors.

Girls tend to be the biggest relational aggression bullies and targets because girls often feel power through their relationships as opposed to feeling powerful because they are physically strong or have a lot of money. Girls can do a lot of things to assert their power and make other girls feel helpless, including name-calling, telling lies, ignoring, excluding, and sexual harassment. This form of bullying works for some girls because they gain attention or acceptance, it creates excitement, or it helps them release feelings of jealousy or revenge.

In situations of relational aggression, it is common to see three types of participants: the bully, the victim, and the bystander. The bully is the mean girl who is the driving force behind the relational aggression, initiating the behaviors such as spreading rumors or exclusion. The victim is the target of the bullying. As a result of the relational aggression, the victim will often be passive or pretend that she isn’t hurting in an attempt to be and appear strong. Unfortunately, the end result is often damage to the victim’s self-esteem and self-confidence. The bystander tries to stay neutral and comfort herself by saying that she did nothing wrong because she didn’t start the rumors or call anyone names. Often, the bystander doesn’t speak up because she is afraid to get involved for fear of incurring the bully’s wrath upon herself. Sadly, when bystanders do nothing, they indirectly contribute to the feelings of helplessness and worthlessness experienced by the victim. A fourth role that isn’t seen nearly enough in relational aggression scenarios is the empowered girl; she will not silently stand by and allow another girl to be bullied. It does not matter if the victim is her friend or not. Being empowered means she is not afraid to speak her mind and stand up against injustice.

So, what can be done to combat relational aggression? Ultimately, it is important to create environments that are not tolerant of bullying. Teaching empathy can also be a big help. Adults who interact with kids, especially girls – like teachers, moms, scout leaders, dance teachers, coaches -- need to be educated about relational aggression and watch for signs of it. Girls need to be empowered to stand up for each other rather than allow someone else to be victimized in order to keep themselves safe. Finally, don’t tolerate relational aggression. The “Boys will be boys” and “Girls are just that way” attitudes need to be banished. With relational aggression in particular, it is important to heed the words of Elie Wiesel: "We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented."

The information for this post was summarized from the workshop “Mean Girls II: A Second Helping of Insights and Strategies for Working with Relationally Aggressive Girls and Empowering Their Victims” presented by Dr. Chamarlyn Fairley (2007). A collection of books about relational aggression is available through Youth Light, Inc. (

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Bullying and the School’s Responsibility

This post was originally written for the website Summit Series for Families.

It is natural for parents to want to protect their children from bullies, and it is natural for parents to want their children’s school to address bullying when it happens. But what can schools really do about bullying, and what can parents do to help the schools help them?

Justin Patchin, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, discusses what is and what is not in the scope of responsibility of schools in a blog post on his website. He explains that students have freedom of speech at school just like they do outside of school. What is problematic is when that freedom of speech turns ugly against our children. We as parents want the school to make it stop. But what can the school do specifically? Schools are allowed to restrict students’ speech and discipline behavior at school in order to maintain an appropriate learning environment, but if a school is going to intervene in something that occurred off campus (like on Facebook or via text message or email), that speech or behavior has to present itself as causing or likely causing a significant disruption of the learning environment. Regardless, the school can do certain things like call parents, talk to students involved, or even impose extra-curricular sanctions.

What does all this mean in terms of help a parent can expect from the school? The first thing to keep in mind if your child is being bullied is that the school really does want to help but may be limited in the action it can take. The next thing to do is tough – keep your emotions under control. This is difficult because it is instinctual for a parent to protect his/her child from harm, but in order to accomplish things quickly and effectively, the parent needs to be calm and rational when coming to the school for help.

According to the principal and dean of students at the junior high where I teach as well as a tip sheet published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the most important thing is to keep evidence. If cyberbullying is occurring, it is imperative to save and print out copies of emails, web pages, and pictures. Keep copies of text messages – they can even be forwarded from the child’s phone to the parent’s phone. It is also helpful to type out the date, time, and text of text messages, but don’t delete the actual texts themselves! Don’t delete any voice mails, either. Learn more about keeping digital evidence here. If the bullying is taking place in person, keep a log of bullying incidents. Have your child explain when and where the bullying took place, who was involved, who else was there as, what was said or done, and how the incident finally ended. Keeping a log like this can establish of pattern of behavior and may offer other insights, like the most common places or times the bullying is happening.

It is also important to keep lines of communication open with the school. As a teacher, I appreciate when a parent tells me of conflict involving his/her child and another student in my class. This allows me to keep a close eye on the students and avoid potential problem situations like having the students work as partners. Let the school know how the situation is progressing – have things improved or gotten worse?

If the bullying turns violent or threatening, or the bullying cannot be disciplined through the school, don’t hesitate to contact local law enforcement. They will need the same kinds of evidence.

Don’t be afraid to step in and help your child if he/she is being bullied, and don’t be afraid to involve the proper authorities and notify your child’s school. Most bullying situations don’t resolve themselves; they require adult intervention.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Is It Bullying or Just Teasing?

This post was originally written for the website Summit Series for Families.

As a teacher, I often have students tell me they are being bullied. Parents will also email me and my colleagues alerting us to bullying. The term “bullying” has come to be commonly thought of as any mean or unkind behavior exhibited toward another person. This is only partially true, so it is important to really understand the difference between what is truly bullying and what is just teasing.
Bullying is angry and hostile. The body language and tone of voice are key indicators. Bullies will act aggressively, moving in close to their target, maybe clenching their fists or speaking through gritted teeth or a sarcastic smile. The tone of voice might be insulting, mocking, or threatening. It will also appear one-sided, with the bully doing most of the talking. Teasing, on the other hand, will appear playful and more easy-going. Kind gestures and expressions can be observed. There will likely be a playful back-and-forth between the parties; both people will be speaking and even smiling or laughing.
Bullying continues or escalates when the victim becomes upset. Bullies are trying to elicit this type of response and will exploit it once they’ve found a weakness. On the other hand, teasing isn’t meant to be hurtful so it usually stops once one person becomes upset. There may even be an apology, which certainly won’t accompany bullying (at least not a sincere apology).
Teasing can turn into bullying if it is taken too far and doesn’t stop happening. Once a situation appears to be more than teasing, another “test” to use to determine if a behavior is bullying is to use the acronym RIP.
R stands for “repeated.” Bullying is a pattern of behavior. It happens often, even constantly, to the same victim from the same offender or offenders.
I stands for “intentional”. If a student bumps into another student in a crowded hallway, that isn’t necessarily bullying. When that bump happens every day during every passing period and the offender knows what he/she is doing, that’s bullying because it is done purposefully.
P stands for “power”. Bullies like to have power over their victims. They will use repeated, intentional, and even seemingly innocent behaviors to subtly assert that power. When a bully purposely and repeatedly bumps into that kid in the crowded hallway, it can be passed off to a teacher or other adult as accidental, but the bully and his/her victim both know better. The victim is rendered nearly helpless – who would seriously complain about being jostled in a crowded hallway? The bully has now gained power over the victim.
It’s important to be alert to behaviors that are clearly hostile or could easily become hostile. But it’s not appropriate to label every negative interaction that occurs among children as “bullying.” To really see bullying, one needs to watch for the subtleties in the exchange that is taking place and document all behaviors to look for a pattern.
Learn more about the difference between bullying and teasing here.

Five W's and an H: Cyberbullying

This post was originally written for the website Summit Series for Families

Gone are the days of what adults think of as bullying: the boy on the playground threatening to beat up someone for lunch money. Nowadays, bullying comes in a more insidious form that has coined its own genre – cyberbullying. According to the Cyberbullying Research Center cyberbullying is the “…willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices.” Since this form of bullying and harassment is a new form of intimidation, parents need to learn everything they can about it in order to protect their children from it, prevent their children from doing it, and help their children deal with it when they encounter or experience it.

WHO are the cyberbullies? Ultimately, anyone with access to technology can be a cyberbully. However, research done by Sameer Hinduja and Justin W. Patchin shows that girls are slightly more likely to be cyberbullies than boys, and cyberbullying behavior seems to occur at even rates among all races/ethnicities (see graphs of their research here).

WHAT is cyberbullying? Simplifying the definition above, cyberbullying is the use of technology to harass and intimidate others.

WHERE does cyberbullying happen? It is incorrect to think that all incidents of cyberbullying happen at home. Cyberspace has expanded beyond the walls of our homes so cyberbullying occurs wherever kids can use technology, which can include a friend’s house, school, the library, the mall, or in the car with parents. Smart phones and computers allow kids to be connected to the world literally every place they go.

WHEN does cyberbullying start? Some research indicates that kids experience cyberbullying in their teens and that it is most prevalent among 15 and 16 year olds but really can start any time children have access to technology, which can be as early as age 10 when kids might get cell phones or some relatively unsupervised time on a computer (see research by the National Crime Prevention Council here).

WHY do kids cyberbully? A thorough list of possibilities can be found here through the Stop Cyberbullying website. The bottom line is some reasons stem from misguided attempts to do something perceived as good (like improving social standing or defending a friend) to reasons that are more sinister in nature (like anger, revenge, power, or to elicit a reaction). Ultimately, many kids can’t succinctly express why they do it.

HOW do kids cyberbully? The most prevalent forms of cyberbullying include posting mean or hurtful comments online and spreading rumors. The most commonly used forms of technology include cell phones and texting, Facebook, and game systems such as xBox 360 (see data).

The kids of today have always had technology as a part of their lives. For the majority of adults, it hasn’t been with us for even half of our lives. Because of this, parents need to learn about the technology that is at their children’s fingertips in order to do our jobs as parents by bringing up safe, responsible digital citizens.