There is an emerging problem of relational aggression in girls that continues to worry me. Bullying has always been a social phenomenon that caused great concern in teachers and mental health practitioners for many years now. In the last decade, a new meaner form of bullying has taken hold mostly in “girl groups” as young as 11-12 years old. The deep wounds created by this fierce social targeting, and then outright rejection of one girl in the group carry into adulthood.
In fact, girls who are at first accepted into a social group, and then gradually targeted and rejected by the group is identified as one significant event in a woman’s life that sets her on an alternate and often self-destructive trajectory. The group members are increasingly silent in the face of this dynamic, fearing that they too will be targeted. In many instances, each girl in the group becomes a target over time, socially rejected for a period of time, or forever outcast.
In my lengthy experiences working with children and youth, this form of relational aggression specifically among girls has intensified over time with little to no room for processes of forgiveness, relationship repair, or healthy group reconstitution to occur.
Certainly, in my earlier career, efforts related to social reconciliation in small groups were effective at healing harm caused by natural competition for leadership, adolescent psycho-sexual development, or early onset mental illnesses including personality disorders or impaired social skills development caused by significant underlying undiagnosed psychiatric conditions, family dysfunction, or abuse.
Despite our collective efforts in education, mental health, and community social services, something has gone amiss. We continue to miss the mark at identifying and supporting girls who are persistently hurt by their peers, and now are rejected by all their friends. It is a horrible new development in social relationships that requires intervention. The by-stander phenomenon appears to have been gradually replaced by a false and dangerous mindset of socially acceptable exclusion. It is false – and perhaps criminal – to socially accept that any one person or citizen in a group is not worthy of full inclusion in all areas of life.
The view that children can ignore or walk away from another child has morphed into one of the negative impacts of a common parenting strategy that aimed to reduce conflict and violence at schools and in the community. Many children support this false view that it is okay to reject a person that the group believes is annoying, bothersome, weird, or different. Parents are in part responsible for this new meaner form of relational aggression that emotionally injures and scars girls and women.
The danger of parenting strategies that support the exclusion of any person or persons is the real emotional injury created by social isolation and rejection. Signs and symptoms of emotional pain caused by broken friendships include increased anxiety, panic attacks, somatic pain in the stomach or chest areas, problems breathing, intense sadness, and depression.
Parents are encouraged to support their daughters to cultivate several social circles of friendships, and not just one. Girls often bond intensely to one or two other friends. It is a devastating experience for your child and for you when or if you child is rejected and excluded by this close-knit group of friends. To offset, what is sadly now a more common social reality for girls, it is best to enroll and register your child into as many opportunities to make friendships.
Deciding to live in a family-friendly neighbourhood, exploring extra-curricular activities that promote social interaction, and becoming involved in your child’s school are all ways to mediate the problems of relational aggression in girls. If your daughter is particularly competitive then enroll her in challenging competitive sports, science, or dramatic programs where her need to win can be developed in a healthy manner.
Competition is a healthy feature of leadership in girls and needs to be cultivated. Compassionate leadership calls for people to have an inclusive orientation with an embedded key sense of justice that supports all voices in a group, mediates difficult conversations, and renders fair and balanced decisions or judgements. Leaders are called to make decisions on behalf of a group. Social group members choose a leader to follow based on a sense of fair treatment and reasonable decision-making.
I have always walked away from an intensely competitive dynamic that “feels” mean, “exclusionary”, and simply unkind. Raised in a large family, my belief system is founded on the perspective that there is always room for one more at the dinner table. We were raised to share, invite, host, and include.
I remain hopeful for a world where girls and women can lead without retraumatizing others in a repetitive-compulsive fashion or in ways that they themselves were hurt. Leaders with reputations of questionable and “mean” conduct towards peers over several years shows this repetition compulsion likely formed in early social groups at school where being mean first appeared.
The absence of trauma-replication is evidentiary support that healing has occurred. Compassionate leaders speak to our humanity and recognize that imperfection is part of the human experience. They lead, direct, and shape change with understanding, care, support, encouragement, inclusion, and fairness.
Be proactive and learn parenting strategies that build compassionate leaders for our tomorrow! The world needs it.
Lisa Romano-Dwyer BSc, MSW, PhD, RSW