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. (http://www.youthlightbooks.com)