Worrisome Relational Aggression in Girls

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

Where’s your piece of Wellness Pie?

Pie charts are traditionally used to depict proportionality. Pies easily demonstrate notions of wholeness as well as component and discrete parts. For social workers, the fundamental idea that “the whole is greater than the sum of its individual parts” is illustrated by the circular shape of a pie and its slices.

Your overall wellness may be viewed in its entirety like the picture of the freshly baked apple pie above, or explored discretely as slices shown in the financial and pizza pies above. Used in budgeting, food prep, and mathematics, the circle can also be used to better understand your personal wellness.

You may think about your Personal Wellness Goals in relation to your Family, Health, Career, Relationships, Entertainment & Recreation, and Finances. You may bake a pie for each component of your life and then think about the discrete parts of your career, family, or financial pie.

As you bake and slice each pie, you are likely to gain deeper insight to those aspects of your life that consume most of your energy. You may discover that you are not really fond of the pie that you have baked. You may also conclude that you have given too much of your pie away. In the case of the pizza pie, you might experience that your order was actually delivered to the wrong address or family to enjoy.

Whatever the case might be with your past Wellness Pie, there is hope that you can start anew. Taking the time to bake, draw, or think about those pieces of your life that you value most is an important first step in your Wellness Planning.

Engaging the services of a Wellness Coach who offers specialized assessment and planning services and resources for you to use is easier than ever before yielding excellent results.

Each piece of your Overall Wellness may be viewed as one slice of your personal pie and the amount of time you devote to each part may explain periods of un-wellness or ill health. Behavioural activation components of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy offer you daily activities and practices that promise to build health and sustain your wellness over the long haul.

There is no doubt that Covid Lockdown has challenged you and your regular activities of daily living that normally keep you feeling healthy and well. You might be wondering where your piece of wellness pie is ?

In truth, you are your own master of wellness, and ultimately responsible for your own health and wellbeing. If you continue to experience prolonged periods of emotional distress or physical pain then it is time to make a change.

Reaching our to your family doctor is always the best recommended first step to your Wellness Planning. Seek a medical opinion first as there are many health conditions that cannot be diagnosed without medical technologies and exams.

Once you are all cleared to begin a new diet, exercise, and personal wellness plan, then it is time to get moving or to connect with a qualified someone who can help you to get moving…

As the Easter holiday approaches, many people will be enjoying more chocolate and candies than usual. The annual celebration of new life is a perfect time to bake or purchase at least one pie and to reflect on your own Wellness.

Do not be surprised if you discover that 90% of your life-pie is spent doing work with little time for much else. This is perfectly fine when you are content and healthy, and the people you love most are also content and healthy.

Restoring your personal sense of balance with reasonably sized pieces of healthy living in all areas of your life will promote your inner peace, joy, good humor, active sex or social life, cooperative family life, and physical health.

We care how you feel. New referrals accepted.

Lisa Romano-Dwyer BSC, MSW, PhD, RSW

Collateral Damage of Parental Alienation

Undermining Moms and Dads results in serious societal problems.

As divorce rates continue to rise, Provincial and Federal Acts are changing processes to make it easier for families with children to come to agreeable terms of divorce earlier. The Moving Ontario Family Law Forward Act, 2020 proposes to align more closely with the Federal Divorce Act so to modernize language around terms used in processes of custody and access. Any updates in legislation that minimize the emotional injury caused by separation and divorce on children is always a good thing. Families are worth fighting for, and many people have repaired what at first might appear to be failing relationships.

In more recent times, “parental alienation” has emerged as a clinical term designed to capture the detrimental impacts on child-parent relationships caused by a persistent campaign of denigration aimed at discrediting the love, care, and compassion of one parent by the other. Research has found consistent indicators of this long cited phenomenon in children that results in an overall unbalanced perspective of one parent in favour of another by one or all children involved. It is possible that only one child in the divorcing family shows evidence of parental alienation even where siblings continue to hold fair perspectives of both parents. Over time, this persistent denigration takes hold, and one or more children reject the second parent in favour of the alienator.

The reasons for one parent to actively denigrate and injure the reputation of a child’s second parent are complex, and normally link back to the fundamental reasons for separation and divorce in the first place. Relationships built on unhealthy and insecure attachment styles are prone to years of distrust, ongoing emotional testing, and poor personal boundaries that can sadly permeate the family relationship style as well. You are likely going to handle your divorce emotionally in a similar manner that you handled your marriage. If you were open to regular dialogue and honest interchange while happily married, then you are more likely to want to talk about serious problems with your spouse that may or may not result in divorce. If you had a high conflict marriage, then the odds are higher that your separation and divorce will be likewise.

Adults seeking divorce following extramarital affairs are often implicated in active parental alienation of one parent over the other. Children may be exposed to details related to sexual infidelity for which they are not emotionally mature enough to understand or process without support. Emotionally injured and grieving parents may unconsciously engage in role reversals with their kids thereby expecting emotional support and nurturance from their children, rather than maintaining their role as care-provider for their children. Depending on a parent’s ability to cope and recover after their marital break-up, many adults turn to their children and family, rather than trusted adult friends or professionals to work through their pain.

So many people share details about an affair or marital break-up with people at work, in their community, or in the family that they later regret they had. The compulsion and need to share is a natural and healthy one designed to keep you from experiencing a full mental or emotional breakdown. Finding the appropriate person to share your emotional pain is important to your health and to the wellbeing of your children. A skilled counsellor, mental health practitioner, social worker, or psychotherapist will help to create a safe place to talk about your feelings, identify emotional roadblocks, and re-build important personal boundaries following martial separation.

An unexpected impact of parental alienation is the general collateral damage caused to Moms and Dads across society. There appears to have been a gradual and increasing denigration of parenting over time, whereby children are more often referred to a Kids-Help service before checking-in with their own Mom or Dad. In my opinion, it is important that clinical social work with children and adolescents always include the option of bringing Mom or Dad into the identified problem, and more importantly into possible solutions. Services that forgo parents as primary care providers risk further damaging the most fundamental relationship in a child’s life. If we are truly aiming to build a better and safer world for our children and grandchildren, then we need to make a better effort at being loving and respectful people with one another.

Updating legislative processes to adapt to adult decisions in ways that minimize emotional harm to children is a grand plan, learning early to make healthy adult decisions for your entire family may be an even greater one. Divorce hurts us all, behave responsibly.

Dr. Lisa Romano-Dwyer RSW, Owner Lakeside Wellness Therapy Affiliates

#wellness #mentalhealth #parentalalienation #parentingiskey