Why are girls so mean? Understanding the challenging relationships of our daughters
By MELANIE MILLER
Kirkland Reporter Contributor
February 6, 2012 · Updated 12:33 PM
Having worked as a school counselor I know all too well the many fifth and sixth grade girls coming down to my office with multiple and ongoing friendship issues.
Now having a daughter of my own, I thought it might be a good idea to learn a bit more about girls and their relationships.
Recently, I did a little reading. I read the book, “Odd Girl Out, The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls” by Rachel Simmons. Simmons interviewed school-aged girls across the country about friends, conflict and aggression.
According to the book, and to my own life experiences, it seems that boys and girls handle conflict differently. Boys tend to argue, wrestle, hit and even physically fight. They put the conflict out there and deal with it.
Girls do things differently. Girls in conflict can be silent, secretive and hard to detect. They fight with a mean look, gossip, spreading rumors, note passing and isolation. Much of this behavior goes unnoticed by teachers and parents because girls are so good at hiding it. It’s a lot easier to see a boy’s flying fist than it is to catch a girl’s mean glance.
The biggest learning for me was that conflict in girls is “relational.” It is not a matter of fine tuning social skills; it is that girls have a highly tuned set of social skills.
They know just how to control and manipulate friends to keep their “posse” of friends close by and involved. The gossip, mean looks and rumors don’t happen between strangers, it happens between best friends.
The relationship between best friends can change in a day. One day two girls are best friends, the next day one girl has decided she wants to be with the “in” crowd, so she begins gossiping about her best friend, giggling when she walks by and altogether ignoring her … all done in order to fit in with the “in crowd.”
Not quite a part of the “in crowd,” the “mean” girl will maintain a friendship with her “best” friend just in case things don’t work out with the “in crowd.”
The most damaging part of this “bullying” is the isolation that the once-best friend feels. Girls are social beings, they need connection with others. They need their girlfriends.
The worst thing that can happen to a girl is to be excluded from her friends and therefore isolated. Most girls will do anything to keep those connections, including putting up with the glares, giggles and isolation from their best friend. Pretty depressing isn’t it? But, there is hope!
Our girls are born and raised to be nurturing, to care for others, to be kind and be friendly. We’ve all heard it or have had it implied: “Nice girls don’t say mean things, nice girls don’t get angry.”
“Girls are polite, generous and kind.” Girls become protective of others’ feelings. They don’t want to say how they are feeling because they don’t want to hurt another’s feelings. They don’t want to walk away from the abusive behavior because they don’t want to be mean. As a counselor I hear these excuses over and over again … and couldn’t understand why they just can’t stand up for themselves!
Rachel Simmons helped me to understand why they can’t stand up for themselves. She helped me to understand the dire depths and necessity of girls having friends. She helped me to understand that only our daughters can find their way through these painful and heartbreaking relationships.
She helped me to understand that as a parent the greatest gift I can give my daughter is to listen. Our girls are the best experts on their relationships. Our advice and control can only further damage the delicate web of our daughter’s relationships.
It’s hard to hear that all I get to do is listen. In Simmons’ book, she recognized many parents that just thought this is part of being a girl and part of growing up; it will be there no matter what we do.
Simmons saw it differently. She sees it as unnecessary and often with lifelong damaging affects. Our daughters do not have to endure this. Listening being the greatest gift we can give our daughters, Simmons did suggest other helpful solutions that we can do as a community.
• Parents can model respectful relationships by not participating in gossip or judgment of others.
• School communities can read Simmons book or others similar to it, in order to have a better understanding of girls, friendships and aggression. Girls often don’t want to talk about what is going on. But each day there are the tears! As educated adults, we can look behind the tears to better understand what is going on.
• As adults we can “agree to disagree.” We can model for our daughters’ healthy conflict. We can have a disagreement with another, talk it out, share our feelings and still remain in a relationship with that person.
• Allow our daughters to be angry. Accept that there are times they will be angry at you and that it is okay for them to use their words to express their anger.
• Educate our daughters about the bullying that goes on with email, Facebook, text messaging, etc. When we were young, rumors were spread one person at a time via phone. Now one touch of a button sends an email to a whole class.
• Be aware that relational bullying can start young. Simmons interviewed girls with stories to tell that took place in second grade, and I have heard reports of exclusion in preschool!
The Boston Globe referred to Simmons book as a “must read for young girls and their mothers.” I hope that parents will take time to read this book or others similar to it.
I found a copy at my local library. I hope too that parents can build communities that are aware of relational aggression and be willing to support ourselves and others when our daughters are “growing” through this painful and challenging process.
Parent educator Melanie Miller has nearly 10 years experience working as a LWSD grade school counselor working with girls on friendship and relational issues. She also works as a Positive Discipline Lead Trainer teaching parenting classes and providing trainings for professionals, who work with families, and in schools. Most importantly, she is the mother of a daughter and through this most important role has developed a passion to learn and teach others about relational aggression. Melanie offers workshops in Kirkland for parents and daughters, and school staffs, on girl bullying. To schedule a workshop in your community, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-579-2172.
Contact Kirkland Reporter Contributor Melanie Miller at email@example.com.