Thriving School Psych Thriving Students

Mean Girls

So after the last post you all went out right away and got Mean Girls and have watched it, right? Well in case you didn’t, here’s the trailer. Once you’ve seen the trailer you’ve pretty much seen the movie and spared yourself 2 hours of your life you can never get back:

In Hollywood, the phenomenon is called “Mean Girls.” In the land of School Psychology, we call it “Relational Aggression.” Anyone who has been to high school probably has first-hand experience with it, either as the victim, perpetrator (not my readers!), or more commonly, as a bystander. We just didn’t have a name for it back in high school.

I went to this seminar called “Mean Girls” a while back to learn about strategies I could use at my schools when I see this usually covert aggression. It’s far easier to see a bruise on a kid from a playground fight than it is to see the emotional pain from exclusion, ignoring, intimidation, eye rolling, and rumors. And differentiating between the “normal” ebb and flow of relationships and relational aggression can be difficult. Here is the method proposed about deciding when to intervene.

Intervene if the relational aggression is:

Ongoing, or involves a
Power Imbalance

“Conflict Management” or “Peer Mediation” is a commonly used intervention in schools. In some cases, this can be helpful for each girl to see the other girls’ side. In your run-of-the mill “my best friend’s cousin knows this guy who knows this kid whose going with the girl who heard you say you’re seeing my boyfriend” stuff, it is a good idea to sort out the truth and get the two girls in the same room to figure it out. I had a situation just the other day with the friendship loyalty situation—if you are her friend you are not my friend, so now we can’t hang out. We had a tearful peer mediation and the three are all friends again (For the time being. Middle school friendships can be dynamic).

But it becomes true “relational aggression”(RA) when the conflicts are severe, traumatic, ongoing, and involves a power imbalance. At this point, it’s no longer just a misunderstanding among friends, it is bullying. And if it’s relational aggression, conflict mediation is not appropriate. Why? Because it implies that the victim has a role in to conflict as well. If the victim is having rumors spread about her, is being intimidated, taunted, and excluded, then it’s not a conflict, it’s an imbalance of power.

What can schools do?

1. Identify how pervasive the problem is and what the dynamics are. Use an anonymous survey to find out where and when RA takes place. Survey what tactics are used (e.g. name calling, gossip, rumors spread, cyber bullying, exclusion, harassment for race, religion, or looks, physical aggression, watching someone taunt someone, writing a note/email/post on MySpace that wasn’t nice, etc.)

2. Review results of the survey and develop policies or procedures to specifically address RA (increase supervision in “hot spots,” determine consequences for RA, etc.)

3. Have class meetings or in-services about how to recognize and deal with RA. Role play positive behaviors such as good listening skills, expressing feelings, identifying key players in interactions, and teaching how to make good choices when you are a bully bystander, etc.

What can educators do?

1. Most children will not tell their parents or teachers they are being bullied because thy are afraid that word will get out that they “told” and the mean girls will heap more abuse on them. Look for indicators such as an unexplained reluctance to go to school, sleep disturbances, or vague physical complaints such as headaches and stomachaches that happen on school days.

2. Be available to listen and don’t downplay the importance of an incident. Empathize with the student when she is sharing something she sees as important (remember, something as simple as a note given to a boy that you like him or something can be devastating to a middle school girl)

3. Differentiate for students what is “Tattling” and what is “Telling.” If someone’s feeling sad or upset, then it’s “telling” and that’s okay. For older students, some sort of anonymous reporting may be in order, because the last thing a girl wants is for the mean girl to turn on her for “snitching” or tattling.

4. Check out this website for more suggestions and tips for parents and educators.

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Comments on Mean Girls

  1. I’m curious as to how we can define “severe” and “traumatic” when talking about relational aggression. In my experience with girls, just about everything to them is severe and traumatic – defined slightly differently from what an adult would be thinking of when talking about something severe and traumatic.

    As an aside, I get the feeling that you don’t believe RA needs intervention if it’s not severe, traumatic, ongoing or involves an imbalance of power. Do you believe it can still happen if any/all of these components are not present or do you believe it’s not serious enough to intervene with at that point?

    I know it’s hard to read my intent on a blog comment, but I write from a curious standpoint and nothing more. I’m a graduate student in Canada and relational aggression is my area of research. I’m aware of many different takes on RA and yours is interesting and a bit more complex than some I’ve come across.

  2. Feministottowa,

    Thanks for your comment! I’m glad to hear that you’ve chosen RA as a reserach topic and would love to hear what you’re finding.

    I think RA is where bullying among boys was 20 years ago. Bullying was downplayed as “boys will be boys” or some sort of right of passage until the research came out about the serious consequences. My post was aimed to make the same distinction between “girls will be girls” behavior and RA.

    I believe in intervening whenever a girl presents her own subjective trauma. You’re right, it may not seem severe to adults, but it is to her. At this stage, conflict/peer mediation, counseling sessions, or further fact-finding is probably appropriate.

    I beleive that the intervention changes when reaches the STOP (Severe, Traumatic, Ongoing, and involves a balance of Power) threshold. Conflict mediation is no longer sufficient of possibly inappropriate.

    To draw the bullying parallel, it would be like asking the kid who just got beat up for no reason what role he had in the “misunderstanding.” I believe that if the facts show it’s RA, there should be psychoeducation and consequences, not peer mediation.

    And the distinction between a peer conflict and RA is difficult–that’s why we need your research! 🙂

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