Guest blogger Erik Fisher, PhD: Historically, girls have not been immune to bullying, but the way they typically approached it was through manipulation, name-calling, getting others girls to not be friends with a girl or making up painful rumors about someone. In recent years, we have begun to see a disturbing trend: Girl bullying is becoming much more aggressive and physical. All across the country, stories are surfacing about brutality among girls.
Why is aggressive bullying on the rise among girls? The way we view power is at the core; in our world, it's control-based. Many of us are informally taught four dichotomies to live by: good/bad, right/wrong, strong/weak, win/lose. Classically, girls have been socialized to be good and obedient, which in most circumstances means surrendering looking strong in order to get approval from those in power. These "good girls" would then grow up to be "good wives," often living in their husbands' shadows and not truly feeling fulfilled. Because females were not socialized to be strong, they would not directly challenge others. Instead, they were more focused on gaining acceptance, so their bullying behavior would usually take passive-aggressive and/or manipulative forms that allowed them to express their power over others while also looking good. Those who played the game well were often able to avoid having to face consequences for their actions, because they could coyly play innocent.
In the last 40 years, society has changed. More and more, women are being encouraged to compete on the same playing field as men in sports, academics and the workplace. The effects of this are both subtle and obvious. Males have long been socialized into the win-at-all-costs mentality, and now females are adopting that same belief system. If you look strong, the thinking goes, you increase your chance of winning. Then you, as the winner, get to define what is good and right. Girls are learning this more and more, and they want to look strong through whatever means they can. Aggressive bullying among girls, as with boys, can happen in almost a pack mentality; the fact that others are participating seems to make it more acceptable.
Inside every persecutor is someone who once felt like a victim, and therefore someone who lives feeling fear. Whether or not the bully is acting alone or as part of a pack, she still feels a great deal of inadequacy. She doesn't know where she fits in, so she forces her way into believing that she has power over others. If we're going to change this trend, it's crucial that we look at our society collectively. Many people want to point to "human nature" as a cause of bullying: "Boys will be boys." But these are not boys. Girl brutality is a direct result of culture and socialization. It's not that these girls need to change; we all need to change. I look at parents who turn a blind eye to their bullying children and shake my head. How can they let this happen? What don't they want to see? I want to tell them, "Please have the courage to look at yourself and your child, and see what you have helped create."
Temperament, or our innate approach to the world, is often talked about in developmental psychology. Temperament contributes to how we respond to new situations and persist when challenged. While we may come into the world with certain temperamental tendencies, bullies are made, not born. Even kids who are born wanting to look strong don't have to end up being bullies if they are taught to use their strength in "good and right" ways.
That's where parenting comes into play. We as parents have the power to foster a more cooperative and productive use of power in boys and girls. We have to teach all of our children to learn to find their power within themselves, not from other people. As we teach girls about "girl power," we also have to teach them healthy ways to find it.
About the author: Erik Fisher, PhD, a.k.a. Dr. E, is a licensed psychologist and author who has been featured on NBC, CBS, FOX and CNN. Visit him at www.ErikFisher.com to learn more about his books "The Art of Empowered Parenting" and "The Art of Managing Everyday Conflict," or to check out his blog.