The Mean Girl Culture: Relational Aggression Amongst Young People (Part 1)
This week, Rooted wants to spend some time addressing the “Mean Girl” culture common amongst many middle and high school students. Alice Churnock is a licensed professional counselor who specializes in adolescents and college students.
“You have got to be kidding me! They DID that?!” I said, stunned, as my client relayed her story. Taylor, a 16-year old soccer goddess, broke down in my office as she recounted her previous weekend. Her teammates were undoubtedly jealous that the transfer student had just been named captain of the team for the next year. Their solution to get revenge? To defecate in her driveway and blast Instagram with accusations that she was “a piece of sh*#” and “got what she deserved.”
I had to scrape my mouth off the floor before responding.
Sadly, the number of times during the day I find myself shocked at the stories my clients tell me is exponentially growing. And I’m not talking about thug boys who come from broken homes and skip school every week. These are classy, Christian young ladies.
Even though Taylor was in high school, we know statistically that bullying, called relational aggression, heightens in 7th and 8th grades. Now I’m no statistician, but in my experience, it heightens much younger than that – closer to 5th or 6th grade.
Multiple sources define relational aggression as “behavior intended to harm someone by damaging or manipulating their relationships with others; the goal being to socially isolate while gaining status.”
I live in the South. Here, we’ve perfected the art of relational aggression with our convenient little catch phrases that allow us to get away with saying the most slanderous and appalling gossip. You see, as long as we preface the phrase with “Bless her heart…” or conclude the phrase with “Poor thing,” its socially acceptable to say whatever unfiltered opinion that magically pops into our heads. Our students are not too far from that either. While they may not be as subtle, I’ll hear girls hurl insults, but conclude with “I was just kidding!” or “Don’t be serious!” Frenemies are very alive and well.
A 2006 study reported that students ages 11-15 reported being exposed to 33 acts of relational aggression during a typical week; and 90% of students reported being the target of relational aggression at least once during high school. That was back in 2006. How much greater is it now in 2018 with spread of Snapchat, YikYak, and whatever other site is the flavor of the day?
Those of us who work with kids know that friends are as important as oxygen, and whether they admit it or not, having a solid social standing holds high importance. So for most victims of bullying, it’s better to suffer in silence than to risk being excluded by standing up for themselves or others. In fact, one of the highest ranked fears of adolescent women is being ostracized (second only to the fear of being fat – but that’s a topic for another day).
Unlike the movies depict, the most popular kids are typically NOT the bullies who are most concerning. It’s their friends that we need to fear. An interesting study by sociologists Robert Faris and Diane Felmlee (from the University of California at Davis) compared rates of aggression to social status. For 4.5 years, they tracked students throughout their middle school and high school careers. Their findings proved that the more popular a student became, the more they were both attacked and, subsequently, the more aggressive they became until they reached the top 2% of popularity. Once that social hierarchy was secured, rates of bullying drastically dropped. The battle to enter the inner circle of “cool” had ended. Now an act of aggression may actually be viewed by peers as a sign of powerlessness, insecurity about being at the top of the pecking order. But for those kids just under the most popular ones (think of Gretchen Wieners to Regina George from the movie Mean Girls), the rates of relational aggression increase as status surges.
Faris rightly emphasized that the majority of kids are not bullies. But contrary to popular stereotype, they did report that boys spread gossip only slightly less frequently than girls did. Relational aggression was more prevalent in girl-girl relationships than boy-boy relationships, but it did find that boys were more likely to be both verbally and physically hateful toward girls than vice versa.
I recently had the privilege to participate in a panel event on relational aggression. In preparation for it, I decided to do some of my own research. I asked a handful of my 5th and 6th grade clients, “What makes a kid get picked on?” The common thread in each of their answers referenced back to those children who were rather different. Perhaps their style was more eclectic or their hobby was creating origami as opposed to fashion and Taylor Swift. Regardless, it was the perceived “unusual” characters who appeared to have a target on their backs.
Guy, girl, popular, nerdy…the case is made for empowering our youth to recognize the signs of relational aggression. While overt bullying is certainly frightening, covert bullying is just as serious and perhaps more dangerous because its bruises are internal, leaving less likelihood of intervention.
Proverbs repeatedly speaks to the power of our words. “A soft answer turns away wrath but harsh words stir up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). The image of stirring up anger reminds me of a cartoon witch with a green, warty nose stirring up her nasty cauldron. The pot of relational aggression is filled with many rotten ingredients that can be boiled down to two categories – passive and active aggression.
One of the most common ways I witness relational aggression with my clients is through the dreaded silent treatment. Whether its sulking or other non-verbal gestures like leaving a text on “Read,” this passive-aggressive method of bullying is incredibly confusing for young brains. Convincing others to also shun the targeted teen only adds fuel to the drama fire. As if the middle school lunchroom isn’t horrible enough, for 12-year old Leighton it truly became her worst nightmare. After six months of dining together, the table’s queen suddenly decided there was no more room for Leighton. The more she tried to make amends, the more hateful the group treated her. To this day, she has no idea what happened.
More outright versions of relational aggression can be seen with spreading rumors, or worse, exposing private and confidential information about an unsuspecting victim. Like Bambi staring down a Mack truck, these kids get blindsided by the very same friends they tap danced with just a few years earlier.
Attacks on sexuality increase as age increases. Both genders are derogatorily accused of romantically falling for the same sex. Names like “gay,” “homo,” “fag,” “queer” get plastered all over social media outlets, leaving the victim feeling helpless and angry. In the same way, I see my female clients throwing around “whore” and “slut” as both a term of endearment and blatant indictment.
Lastly, there’s the Teen Traitor – my term for the most common kind of bullying that kids show up in my office to resolve. It’s when one child is charged with disloyalty to the set group. Avery made cheerleading and started hanging out with some new friends, but by doing so she threatened the safety of “The Six Pack.” These six girls came from parents who all went to college together and families who vacationed at the beach together each summer. She meant no harm by it, only enjoyed making new friends who shared her common interest. The Six Pack never forgave her.
While harsh words stir up anger, our encouragement comes from the next chapter of Proverbs. “Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.” Proverbs 16:24. How contrasting an image is that of the witch vs. the honeycomb?! In the coming weeks, several of us at Rooted hope to provide you with both the realities and the comforts that words possess. For those who’ve suffered depression, anxiety, and isolation at the hands of aggressors, take heart. Because of what Christ has done for us, gracious words are the final words.
Join us as we explore this timely topic of relational aggression over the next few weeks.
This blog is made available to you by the Rooted Ministry for educational purposes only, not to provide specific therapeutic advice. The views expressed are the personal perspectives of the author and do not represent the views of all counselors or the profession. This blog does not create a counselor-client relationship and should not be used as a substitute for competent therapeutic counsel from a licensed professional in your state.