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When "drama" isn't a class at school

January 14, 2011 - Betsy Bethel
It starts as young as 3 years of age, according to one of my acquaintances who experienced it firsthand with her daughter. One girl decides to shun another little girl for reasons the outcast can't understand. There is whispering among the "in" girls, who glance frequently, or just stare, in the outcast's direction.

At age 4, my own daughter either has heard or has felt she is "not good enough" to play with a certain girl — I haven't been able to determine which. She also has been known to say she doesn't want to play with specific girls. When I ask her why, she has no answer.

Parents and teachers have to learn how to stop this "relational" bullying now, before it heads unchecked into the elementary school years and out onto the "new bathroom wall" -- the cyber world. Fortunately for us, there is Rachel Simmons.

Simmons is the author of "Odd Girl Out" and "Curse of the Good Girl." You can find out more about her at She's also on Facebook. Wheeling Country Day School recently offered parents of its female students, ages 2 through fifth grade, the chance to hear a webinar led by Simmons that was conducted through the International Schools Association of the Central States, with which WCDS is affiliated.

Simmons' research into girls' behavior has made her a leading expert on the topic. She was prompted by an experience she had at age 8. "When I was 8 years old, my friend Abby would make my friends run away from me after school." Abby's goal, she said, was to isolate her and to turn her friends against her. Years later, the experience stuck with Simmons and she decided to examine girl-on-girl bullying. This was about 10 years ago, and she found little if anything in the way of formal studies. So she set out to create some.

Simmons explained in the webinar we need to call what girls do "bullying" rather than dismissing it as simply "drama" or saying "girls will be girls." Simmons said one of the girls involved in bullying Phoebe Prince last year in Massachusetts (which led to her suicide one year ago today), defended herself and her friends by saying something like , "That's just how we are. We're all about drama."

Drama is a class in school. Girls being mean to each other is not drama, it is bullying. If we don't call it bullying, then, for one thing, all the anti-bullying policies and presentations that occur in schools don't apply to these girls -- or at least they don't think so, Simmons said. The classic schoolyard bully who uses physical violence to pick on younger or weaker students still exists, but he or she is only one kind of bully.

"If mothers don't react to relational aggression as if it is physical aggression, levels continue to rise," Simmons said. You don't let your daughter hit another child. Being unkind using words or by withholding relationships is no different.

The most important thing to a girl is her relationships, Simmons said. What a bully does is destroy, or threaten to destroy, a girl's relationships. "If you don't do what I want, I won't be your friend anymore — and I will take others away from you, too." It's friendship as weapon. This can be done indirectly or directly.

Indirect aggression occurs when a girl makes fun of a friend or classmate but follows it up with "Just kidding." She might say: "Are you really wearing that out?" Or "What did you do to your hair? It looks like you stuck your finger in a light socket." If the target gets upset and/or tries to defend herself, the bully says, "I was just kidding!" or "Geez, can't you take a joke?" If she says she didn't mean it, Simmons said, she believes she didn't do anything wrong. The target risks further alienation if she continues to protest. The more she sticks up for herself, the more likely she is to be considered uptight and not willing to take a joke, and the more likely she will be the "odd girl out."

Indirect aggression also involves nonverbal experessions such as eye rolling, the silent treatment, mean looks and staring, Simmons said, plus spreading gossip and rumors through social media -- texting, IMing, Facebooking, etc.

So what can we do about it? In the case of social media, children should be taught before they are handed a phone or allowed online that they should only type what they would say to someone in person. This should be a hard and fast rule, and if it is broken, they should have the privilege of using the device taken away. How do you find out? Look. It is not "snooping" if a parent checks out text messages or has a relative check on a girl's Facebook page, Simmons said. If you buy into that, you are letting your daughter control and manipulate you.

In terms of non-verbal expressions, call her out on them. When you see the eyes roll, don't ignore it. Ask her if she has something to say. One parent at the webinar suggested the child shouldn't be forced to speak if what they want to say might be unkind. The important thing, though, is that they know the eye rolling is not going to fly.

The parents of the "odd girl out" should show empathy ("I would feel angry and sad, too") and sympathy ("I am so sorry this is happening."), and should avoid blaming the child or asking what she did to cause the situation, Simmons said. Also avoid saying "That's just how girls are" or "It happens to everyone."

Then, talk with your daughter about what she wants to do about it. This empowers her, gives her "the sense that she has the capacity to create change in her world," Simmons said. Most important, it avoids your daughter developing a victim mentality that will cripple her long into adulthood in every area from her leadership skills to her ability to develop intimate relationships, she said.

One plan of action she suggests uses the acronym GIRL. G is for Gather your choices. Ask her how she could respond to the attack. I is for I choose ... Whether or not she actually will do what she chooses is irrelevant, but she should choose a response from her list of choices for this exercise. R is for Reasons are... The reasons she chose this route. And L is for List the outcomes. What might happen if you went through with your plan of action. Even a very young girl can be taken through this exercise. By walking her through it, you can help her see she does have choices and what the consequences might be.

It also teaches her it's OK to talk to her aggressor. Emotions are not "bad" — it's OK to be angry at a friend, hurt by their actions or words, afraid you will lose friendships. It's better, Simmons said, to risk speaking to that friend about your feelings than to pretend everything's OK just to keep the infected friendship alive. She discusses this topic at length in "Curse of the Good Girl."

As a parent, I admit I experience moments of terror when I consider the hurt my daughter might experience in her growing-up years. I once was the "odd girl out." I also was "the good girl" — the two are often related, Simmons said. I don't plan, however, to be responsible for history repeating itself. Hurt and pain are part of life, there's no deying it. How you cope seems to be the biggest indicator of success.

One year ago today, poor Phoebe Prince decided she couldn't cope. I want to be sure my daughter can, and I want to teach her how not to become a bully herself. I look forward to reading both of Simmons' books to help her ... and myself ... learn strategies for success. I hope you will, too. Let's leave the drama on the stage.


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