Girl Bullying: What Do We Do About It? By Tess Brigham, LMFT

December 08, 2012 1:41 AM | Admin EBCAMFT
As therapists we are used to working in the “shades of gray” but one thing we know is that boys and girls are different.  When a parent comes to us it is vital that we understand the distinction between how boys and how girls bully each other.  

Bullying is an issue that triggers emotional reactions in us because most of us have been bullied at some time.  Girl bullying is an important segment of the larger issue of female self-esteem and female friendships.  

When parents come with issues of bullying, this presents the opportunity for you to help parents, to not only navigate this difficult situation, but also to give them education and tools to strengthen their daughter’s sense of self.  This will enable their daughters to grow into strong and confident young women.   

Complicating this issue is that we are working with a generation of kids that are “digital natives” and use technology on a level that we will never fully understand. The anonymity and availability of Smartphones, Facebook and Twitter can make bullying a 24/7 problem.  

When a parent comes to you saying their daughter is being bullied, certain techniques can be helpful:
Educate them on what happens biologically and developmentally during the pre-teen and teen years.
Inform them of what they can do at home before, and during, their daughter’s middle school years.
Develop a plan of action when their daughter is being bullied. Incorporate tools they can use on a daily basis to continue to strengthen their daughter’s self-esteem.

Biologically girls bond and build trust with people through relationships.  Dr. Louann Brizendine in her book “The Female Brain” has discovered that a girl’s behavior is not a direct result of socialization.  We are not born with a “unisex” brain, girls are already wired as girls and boys are wired as boys.  Brizendine writes, “girls arrive (in) the world better at reading faces and hearing human vocal tones.  A girl is born with a highly tuned machine for reading faces, hearing emotional tones in voices and responding to unspoken cues in others.”  

When a girl enters puberty, according to Brizendine, “this is the first time a girl’s brain will be marinated with high levels of estrogen.  These hormonal surges assure that all of her female specific brain circuits will become even more sensitive to emotional nuance, such as approval and disapproval, acceptance and rejection.”

Girls will be strong and confident one moment; miserable and sad the next.  Biologically girls are predisposed to react strongly to relationship problems.  Developmentally girls need to be liked and connected, while socially they are expected not to show too much anger or aggression.  These juxtaposing forces create a conundrum.  If a girl wants to express negative feelings toward a friend, she has to use subtle tools.  She will spread a rumor anonymously because she needs to remain socially connected.  She must avoid being perceived as mean or aggressive by the group.

Parents can have tremendous influence over their daughter’s viewpoint of other females thus they must look at their own attitudes towards women.  Do they judge women on appearance in front of their daughters?  How do the females in the house speak of themselves?  Are they constantly criticizing their appearance and speak negatively of themselves?  Are the accomplishments of women being celebrated?  Our culture has so many unrealistic ideals for women.  Parents demonstrate through their praise the qualities they value.  This is the foundation for their daughter’s view of women and thus herself.

If a parent comes to you because their daughter is being bullied tell them to do nothing.  Parents want to jump in and solve the problem, but their daughter has come to them because she needs to be listened to and heard.  If they react with panic or worry, this will make her shut down completely.  Let her vent the entire story.  Do Not Blame--all parties’, the aggressors, the victims, and the bystanders, are hurt by bullying.  Validate her feelings and normalize her stress.

Ask her what she wants to do about the situation.  Find out what she thinks would be the best way to resolve this issue.  Hold your advice.  If it happens once let her speak to the bully directly.  If the problem persists or gets extreme, take action and make sure to involve your child in the process.

Help your daughter learn how to deflect and ignore the insults.  Your daughter needs to develop resilience against the bullying.  Help her develop self-esteem outside of her school relationships.  Get her involved in athletics or a hobby.  If she can feel a sense of accomplishment in another aspect of her life, it will improve her overall view of herself.

Parents can work on helping develop and improve their daughter’s self-esteem.  They can create rituals with their daughter by finding time each day, maybe 10 minutes before bedtime or at breakfast, to connect with their daughter.  No phones, computers, or talk of homework, this time needs to be focused on their daughter so she can really talk.  The small things that parents do everyday add up and can have tremendous influence.  It may not be apparent today, but it will payoff in the future.

It is imperative that we give parents information about what is going on in their daughter’s brain and how it affects behavior.  This knowledge can help parent’s change how the family reacts to bullying as well as help them develop an atmosphere of positive female imagery.  Therapists can suggest ways to incorporate bonding activities that can become life long patterns.  Girls may always struggle with female relationships and with being able to express their negative feelings.  We need to have empathy, listen attentively and help them develop ways to resolve conflicts in order lessen the impact of girl bullying.

Tess Brigham is a family therapist specializing in working with pre-adolescent and adolescent girls, helping navigate the complexities of being a teenager in the 21st century as well as helping parents find the ìrightî moments to build stronger connections with their daughters.  Tess offers practical interventions parents can use to establish trust and open communication with their daughters.  She currently works at Coyote Coast Youth and Family Services in Orinda and at Kaiser Permanente. She has a private practice in Oakland and lives in Berkeley with her husband and young son.


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