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Girls and Bullying

Air Date: 03/01/11 Cheryl can be reached at 775-331-6723 or at cheryl.erwin@sbcglobal.net.   There's nothing new about bullying. Human beings have pushed each other around, threatened each other, and made fun of each other pretty much since the dawn of time. Research consistently shows that almost all American kids have experienced some form of bullying; they've either been the victim, the aggressor, or a witness. Many parents and teachers think of bullying as something that just goes along with childhood-painful and unpleasant, but not really serious. Remember the old rhyme? "Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me?" Wouldn't it be nice if life really worked that way?             Unfortunately, bullying is far more serious than many adults would like to think. Studies have shown that as many as 160,000 children and teenagers-yes, 160,000-stay home from school every day because they're worried about being bullied. When you think about the schoolyard bully, you probably picture a tough-looking boy. But girls these days are bullies, too, and sometimes the results are even more insidious than the pushing and shoving that boys tend to do. When girls bully each other, the experts call it "relational aggression." Girls aren't likely to throw a punch, although some do. Instead, they use gossip, rumors, innuendo, and exclusion to threaten or hurt other girls. Most experts have assumed that the girls most likely to be bullies are girls on the fringe, those who are unpopular or who have serious problems at home. A recent study shows, however, that it's often the popular girls-the attractive, sought-after "queen bees"-who are most likely to start rumors, send that nasty text message or isolate someone who was a best friend just yesterday.   This sort of nastiness often happens without words. Girls roll their eyes, turn their backs, and flip their hair, snide gestures often missed by parents or teachers. And relational aggression happens in swarms of text messages and Facebook posts. Girls are less likely to fight back or to ask for help than boys are. I hear stories about "mean girls" every day in my therapy office; it's a widespread problem. And it's far more serious than many adults believe. Relational aggression has been linked to depression, academic problems, substance abuse, early sexuality and pregnancy, and even suicide. In fact, studies now show that the suicide rates for girls ages 10-14 has gone up as much as 60% in recent years-an unbelievably sharp rise. Girl bullying may be at least partly to blame.             Being bullied and excluded by peers and supposed friends can make life a living hell for girls. Being left out and demeaned has a deep effect on a girl's sense of worth and self-confidence. Even as adults, many women recall the things other girls said and did to hurt them, and the pain is still very real. And sad to say, even nice girls-girls like your daughters-often stand by and do nothing, knowing that if they intervene to help a victim, they may be next.             I can't stress this strongly enough: girl bullying and relational aggression are something that every parent, teacher, therapist, social worker, youth leader, and school administrator in our community should be deeply concerned about.              Children and teens in our culture face tremendous pressure, much of it from directions their parents don't really understand. The Ophelia Project is an organization whose mission is to create safe communities and healthy peer relationships. So, what's "safe"? According to the Ophelia Project's website, "Safe social climates consist of community members who protect, respect, encourage and hold one another accountable. Relational aggression, covert aggression and bullying-including taunting, exclusion, gossiping, or rumor-spreading-are not tolerated." Imagine what our communities might be like if all of us could live by those words.             If there are any girls and young women in your life, you owe it to them and to yourself to become educated about girl bullying. There are a number of excellent books available, including "Odd Girl Out", "Queen Bees and Wannabes", and Mary Pipher's classic, "Reviving Ophelia." And you can tune in: The next time a girl you know says, "she was mean to me", don't just let the moment pass. Show empathy and interest; ask gentle questions and listen well to the answers. Ask your daughters or your students what they know about girl bullying. And get involved: make sure your child's school has an anti-bullying program in place. These programs are most effective when they are supported by every adult in the school, from the principal to the custodian. Every young person I know is well aware of the prevalence of relational aggression and how mean girls can be. It's time for parents and teachers to listen-and to speak up. For KUNR, this is Cheryl Erwin.