Anna's thirteenth birthday is only a day away when her two best friends inform her with mock sadness that they won't be coming to her sleepover party.
"Tina asked us to go to the movies with her. That's way more fun than watching videos at your house and playing those stupid games your mom comes up with," they snicker, linking arms and walking away.
An older girl begins to make fun of newcomer Monica's scrawny build whenever they pass each other in the halls of their small rural high school. Even though fifteen-year-old Monica switches from wearing her favorite skirts and dresses to jeans, soon everyone is calling her "chicken legs" and cackling when she passes.
At ten, Lucy hates playground. Every day when the teacher is distracted, a boy will swoop up and snap the back of Lucy's new bra, which barely contains her B-cup breasts. Worse yet is the betrayal of girls, who cluster together and laugh when that happens. Even Lucy's former friends have started sticking out their chests mockingly and strutting behind her.
Day after day, fifteen-year-old Shantal and her crowd of friends face off against fourteen-year-old Erika and her group. In the cafeteria of their inner-city school, Shantal calls Erika a "slut" because she is dating Reese, a good-looking seventeen-year-old. In return, Erika shoves past Shantal and mutters "bitch" just loud enough to be heard. The confrontations grow more and more heated until one day between classes Erika punches Shantal in the face, an encounter that escalates into a brawl requiring police intervention.
What do these young women and their friends have in common? All are caught up in the whirlwind of relational aggression, wounded by the words and actions of another girl. Even Erika and Shantal, who work to maintain "tough girl" stances at all costs, are scared, hurt, and insecure underneath.
Relational aggression (RA), also called female bullying, is the use of relationships, rather than fists, to hurt another. Rumors, name calling, cliques, shunning, and a variety of other behaviors are the weapons girls use against one another on an everyday basis in schools, sports, recreational activities, and even houses of worship. The increasing incidence of physical confrontations between girls, like Erika and Shantal's are often preceded by escalating relational aggression.
Most women can recall an incident of RA in their own past, but the seriousness of these behaviors is reaching new proportions, resulting in criminal charges, school shootings, and suicides. Why are today's girls so willing to be this cruel to one another?
When psychologist Mary Pipher wrote her bestselling book Reviving Ophelia in the mid-1990s, she suggested we need to "work together to build a culture that is less complicated and more nurturing, less violent and sexualized, and more growth producing." If anything, the world of adolescent girls is now more complicated, violent, and sexualized as well as less nurturing than when Dr. Pipher first proposed her agenda for change.
Today's young women are subtly influenced to interact in ways that reduce rather than enhance their underlying power to connect with one another. Bombarded with messages about their physical appearance at an early age, they are expected to dress provocatively while maintaining straight "A" averages and excelling at sports. They are labeled as mean "Queen Bees" but given no alternatives for more positive behaviors. Their bodies are reaching physical maturity earlier and earlier, yet their cognitive skills remain anchored in adolescence. Role models for today's teens are not powerful women who have succeeded because of their persistence and kindness to others, but rather superstar singers acting like sexy schoolgirls and movie stars firing machine guns or using martial arts on opponents while wearing skintight jumpsuits. No wonder young women find themselves in a state of extreme confusion, unsure of how to relate to either themselves or others.
The good news is that all across the country, mothers, girls, and others are finding ways to help adolescents feel more secure about their own abilities and safe in their relationships with others. Slowly, their efforts are changing the "girl poisoning" culture Mary Pipher first lamented nearly a decade ago, transforming behavior from cruel to kind.
Do all girls have the capacity to be kind? We believe girls are not inherently cruel, and that although behaviors such as jealousy, gossiping, and joining cliques may be normal in terms of what we expect, they are not what we have to accept. Based on our work with hundreds of young women in both our professional and personal lives, as well as extensive research, evaluation, and input from other experts on the subject, Charisse and I know that not only can girls be kind, they feel better about themselves when they are. We call this behavior confident kindness, because the ability to be caring and supportive of others is only meaningful if it comes from an inner sense of security and self-esteem.
It is our role as adults to guide young women to form more positive self-identities, which will in turn lead to more supportive relationships with others. That's what this book is all about. How can mothers, young girls, or any other concerned party overcome RA? In this book, input from four important sources is used to identify twelve key strategies that both girls and adults can use.
First, girls who have been involved in RA share their stories, either in their own words or via interviews. These young women offer advice on how to deal with RA and share ways in which they turned their lives around -- either on their own or with help from others.
A second source is the wisdom of mothers and other adults who have helped young women deal with RA. These include fathers, coaches, teachers, dance instructors, and religious education counselors. Again, the situations these adults faced with adolescent girls are shared, in their own words, along with the specific actions they took, which illustrate the strategies described.
A third source of information is experts, including Dr. Charisse Nixon and myself. Efforts are under way to develop and evaluate programs that specifically address individual, school, family, and community aspects of RA. In addition, many researchers and clinicians are actively studying and identifying key interventions that can put an end to female bullying.
Finally, several organizations that focus on improving the self-esteem of girls and helping them learn more positive ways of interacting are described. These include GENAustin, a "GirlPower" program in one high school; the Boys and Girls Clubs of America; ClubOphelia.com and its premier program, Camp Ophelia; and the Ophelia Project and one of its sister chapters in Warren, Pennsylvania.
Of course, the experiences that feel most relevant to both Charisse and myself are the ones we have had as mothers of girls who are immersed in this culture of female aggression. We have seen our daughters caught up in the tumult of RA behaviors at various ages, but in keeping with the original message of Reviving Ophelia, we believe change is possible. Negative messages about "mean teens," which make for great press, end up stereotyping girls and creating an expectation that such behaviors are normal. The latter is particularly damaging because it perpetuates the notion that nothing can be done, because, after all, "girls will be girls."
It is our goal to focus on the strength and resiliency of young women rather than on their deficiencies. Girls have enormous relational abilities but need guidance to build those abilities into constructive assets. In this book, we will show that girls can -- and must -- be taught to capitalize on the strong, resourceful, positive, and powerful side that lives inside them. Anyone -- male, female, young, old, individual, or group -- can use these strategies to transform the culture of female aggression to one of confident kindness.
The twelve strategies are listed step-by-step for you to follow. The first, and perhaps most important, is to inform yourself and others. Although this may sound easy enough, there are many nuances of RA that affect today's girls. The four chapters devoted to this strategy will describe special situations such as the use of computers for aggression (cyber-RA) and socioeconomic differences and similarities in RA. This content is elaborated on by vignettes by girls and parents.
Strategies 2 and 3 are preventive actions you can use to develop a girl's anti-RA skills at a young age, grow her self-esteem, and equip her with positive relationship skills. Again, the real experiences of adults and girls will be shared to illustrate these principles.
The longest section of the book deals with what to do when RA occurs (Strategies 4 through 10). We begin with relatively mild incidents and progress to serious, sustained types of harassment and aggression. These strategies will help you intervene to end the aggression and hurt all girls experience when RA occurs. Not surprisingly, girls themselves have a lot to say about what helps and what doesn't; their suggestions are summarized in Strategy 10: Give Her a Tool Kit of Options.
Strategy 11 deals with changing the larger culture through individual and community programs targeted at RA. Profiles of key organizations are provided so you can replicate similar efforts in your own home and community. Finally, you will be guided through the steps needed to develop your own action plan.
The book ends with appendices, which are by no means comprehensive but which provide further information on resources, along with a self-assessment quiz on your RA quotient. Sources for further help are also identified.
We frequently mention middle school as the context for working with girls since this is a time when gender differences emerge in RA, but in reality the strategies apply to preschool through young adulthood. While our focus is girl vs. girl aggression, we acknowledge that boys can and do engage in RA, just in different contexts and less often.
Throughout the book, we have taken the liberty of changing names and details where we feel it is appropriate. Where girls specifically requested their names be used with their stories we did so, but all participants can be contacted through Cheryl Dellasega at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the coming years, there will be increasing pressure to create environments that help young women feel safe. Strategies such as the ones we offer are an important first step in changing the culture to make it better for both adolescent girls and ourselves.
In a farewell letter to me, one thirteen-year-old summarized her feelings after attending a week-long camp specifically for middle-school girls: "I know now that there are other ways to act. For me, this means walking away when I'm upset or politely asking for more information about why the aggressor feels the way she does. Just knowing about relational aggression will help me be a different person in the next school year." It is our hope that every girl -- and adult -- can learn a better way to relate to others, to be confident and kind, and to feel better about herself in the process. This book is a how-to for accomplishing these goals.
-- Cheryl Dellasega, Ph.D.
Copyright ©2003 by Cheryl Dellasega, Ph.D., and Charisse Nixon, Ph.D.