Each day, thousands of adolescents go to school with a feeling of dread and a knot in the pits of their stomachs. This anxiety has nothing to do with schoolwork or teachers. The pain these kids suffer is inflicted by their peers, some of whom they may consider among their closest friends. These children are victims of a form of bullying that has long gone either undetected or is barely discussed. It is not the kind of bullying that results in black eyes and broken bones but it does leave emotional scares that can last a lifetime. Rachel Simmons, author of Odd Girl Out, The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, knows the feeling. At a recent lecture, hosted by the JCC on the Upper West Side, Simmons, who has appeared on “Oprah” and “Dateline NBC” and speaks at various venues across the country, recounted the year in her childhood she spent by herself because her popular friend Abby convinced everyone else in the third grade not to be her friend. This kind of behavior goes on every day in school hallways and cafeterias. It is often non-verbal (as in eye rolling), or subtle (as in “accidentally” knocking a girl’s books off the desk). And the victims rarely report it. “Rules may not be broken,” says Simmons. “These behaviors often go on intentionally beneath the radar of parents and teachers.” In researching her book, Simmons interviewed girls between the ages of 10 and 14 in three regions of the United States. “When I first started my research, I would go into classes and ask if girls experience bullying behavior and I got a lot of blank stares,” she recounted. “But when I asked if they knew about the silent treatment or excluding other girls from a group, it opened a floodgate of responses.” While boys may make up the majority of physical aggressors, Simmons says most non-physical or relational aggression occurs between girls. In her book, Simmons writes that relational aggression can include the silent treatment where the target is not confronted directly, or rumor spreading that attacks the victim’s social status. Or, in its purest form, aggressors use the relationship to gain something, as in “Do this or I won’t be your friend.” She says the closer the relationship between friends, the more damaging relational aggression can be. “Relationships are everything to girls. When they are targets of relational aggression, they can’t concentrate. It damages them emotionally and most certainly interferes with academics,” Simmons believes. On the surface, everything may seem fine. “This aggression is very covert and secretive. It’s intended to be. Girls are socialized to be nice. We want them assertive, but we also want them to be liked and friends with everyone. Girls don’t think of what they do as aggression. They don’t even have that word.” Simmons says the danger of relational aggression is that it is teaching girls what they can expect in relationships. This can affect the way they experience intimacy later in life. “When a friend hurts you, the damage to your self-esteem is huge. Girls will put up with this behavior because they don’t want to be alone,” says the author, adding that she sees parallels between this behavior and the behavior of women who are victims of domestic violence. Simmons says the sugar-and-spice image of girls forces them to repress their anger, which can result in taking it out in the form of relational aggression against a target. “Anger is a biological impulse, just like thirst or hunger,” she says. “It’s a part of who we are and until we make that OK, girls will continue to go underground and be sneaky.”
So where do we begin to change a society that teaches girls to be nice all the time, a society where a girl who is viewed as being “too this” or “too that” is scorned by her peers? Simmons contends policy changes in schools and school districts must occur. Most schools have anti-bullying policies that address physical aggression, but few have rules against relational aggression, she explains. “We need to change or expand the definition of what we mean by bullying. Teachers are not in a position to deal with this until schools will back them up.” Parents need to be tuned in to the problem as well, she stresses. If there is one bad episode, it will be fairly easy to spot if your child is the target of relational aggression. The phone stops ringing, the child is no longer interested in sending emails to friends. She may be despondent and talk about herself in a self-deprecating way. But even if the parent spots the problem, the child may be too ashamed or embarrassed to talk about it, Simmons points out. “Particularly among middle class girls, social success is almost as important as academic success for some parents,” she says. “If a parent places so much importance on popularity, it will be more difficult for the child to come forward and talk. I tell parents they are going to really angry when they find out their child is the target of bullying.” Simmons warns parents not to be defensive: “This is not at all easy but try to breathe deeply and do not attack.” Simmons says the most important thing for parents to do is to be there in a non-judgmental way and never say, “I told you so.” Parents need to honor and validate the feelings of their child. “When she is ready to leave the relationship, be there and help her talk through it,” the author urges. Simmons is a graduate of Vassar College and a Rhodes Scholar. She is currently working on her next project — Odd Girl Out Speaks, which will be collection of stories and essays told by girls 18 and younger of their personal reflections and thoughts on girls’ relationships and aggression. For more information on the project, visit Simmons’ website at www.rachelsimmons.com.
Ophelia Aids Schools in Nixing Bullies
Addressing the issue of relational aggression in schools since 1997, the Ophelia Project is one resource for parents and schools who need help addressing non-physical aggression. The New York chapter has initiated a two-year program that works to change the environment in schools, says Laura Martocci, Ph.D., a professor of sociology at Wagner College on Staten Island, and the acting director of the New York City Ophelia Project. The first year is devoted to training of parents, teachers and administrators. Then, in the beginning of the second year, whole school trainings occur. “We listen to the kids, find out what’s needed and what the bullying policy is like,” Dr. Martocci says, “We get the school to reflect on itself and come up with a policy.” In general, she says, of a school’s population, 10 percent are bullies, 10 percent are victims and 80 percent are in the middle. The Ophelia Project targets the 80 percent who “who can be swayed to accommodate the victims,” Dr. Martocci says. One of the strategies the Ophelia Project uses involves high school mentors who come into the school and role-play different situations. The mentors play out bullying situations as they occurred and then re-enact them with alternative endings. Another strategy the project incorporates sets up “enclaves of safety” throughout schools — for example, a restroom might be reinforced with a safety monitor. Dr. Martocci notes that relational aggression peaks at the time adolescents are beginning to move away from the nuclear family and are dealing with issues of trust in relationships. “The scars from relational aggression can hinder the ability for relationships later in life,” she believes. To contact the Ophelia Project in New York, call (718) 442-6033 or visit the website for the national organization at www.opheliaproject.org.