In the past couple of years there has been much talk about females becoming more aggressive and violent.
More aggressive? Many people would say that’s an understatement. More violent? Now, that’s not such a clear answer. According to the latest research conducted by the Girls Study Group for the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, “available evidence based on arrest, victimization, and self-report data suggests that although girls are currently arrested more for simple assaults than previously, the actual incidence of their being seriously violent has not changed much over the last two decades” (May 2008).
The Girls Study Group also stated that “there does not appear to be a large increase in physical violence committed by girls.” I know, I know, hard to believe isn’t it? Or is it? Ever wonder why people have come to the conclusion that girls are more violent now more than ever? If you’re like most people, you probably have seen or read news stories of girls beating each other up and then uploading the video to YouTube.
The media has indeed sensationalized the idea that girls are becoming increasingly more violent. The media does not, however, address the issue of covert aggression among females.
Covert aggression is often referred to as female bullying or relational aggression…A.K.A. “girl drama.”
This “drama” however, can quickly lead to multiple consequences, one of which is physical violence. Schools across the nation admit to an increase in female discipline and behavior problems- the majority stemming from relational aggression (RA) issues. RA can take on many forms such as exclusion, cyber-bullying, rumors, gossip, humiliation, etc. When was the last time you saw or read a news article about relational aggression and its consequences? Chances are you probably haven’t witnessed one lately. The media neglects to tell us that the consequences of RA can include depression, withdrawal, truancy, low grades, and even suicide. Could it be that the media hasn’t covered this topic because a student hiding out in the school bathroom during lunch, or a student with no support network, or a student not connected to their school, is simply…uninteresting? Fighting, violence, and “mean girls,” now that’s newsworthy.
The most popular question I am asked at trainings is, “Why are girls more aggressive now than ever before?” Research does not provide the clearest answer to this question. I have gathered that there are several reasons why girls no longer fit the gender-stereotypic mold of “nice young ladies.” At the top of my list is that society (meaning people, media, adults, etc.) does not value sisterhood. The f-word comes up…no, not that f-word, I mean feminism.
Sisterhood is not about a feminist power movement- it is simply about girls and women communicating, bonding, sharing, and learning from one another.
Instead, what do we do? We love to display images, videos, music, etc. of women bashing on one another. Again, this type of garbage is what sells. Perhaps it sells because we continue to buy into it. Okay, I’ll stop- that’s an entirely different blog!
Ready for number two? Girls are more likely to exhibit aggression (especially toward other females) because THIS is the behavior that is being role modeled for them. Where do they get this “mean gene”? Are they born with it? Well, no, girls are not inherently mean. Girls do, however, imitate the behavior of the adults around them, which includes parents, teachers, after-school staff, and the most dependable mentors- celebrities! A third reason why girls are becoming more aggressive has to do with the theory that girls lose their voice- especially in the middle school years.
Girls often feel pressured to keep quite- internalize their feelings for fear of not being “lady like.”
According to author Leah Davies, when girls “cannot assert their true feelings directly, resentment lingers and their anger manifests itself indirectly. Excessive relational aggressiveness can become a habit that can cause a lifetime of problematic relationships” (2003).
The reality is that relational aggression is just one issue not being addressed comprehensively- not in schools, not in the juvenile justice system, and definitely not in the media. So, what can you do? There are actually several things you can do and you actually just did one of them- educated yourself a little more on the subject. A second step you can take is a simple one- provide your staff, co-workers, parents, etc. with basic information on how relational aggression can impact a girl’s emotional development, school climate, and learning environment. Ready for a third idea? Discussing relational aggression with students with ongoing lessons, activities, journal prompts, etc. can have an extreme impact on the situation. Please note that I italicized the word “ongoing” in the previous sentence- this means that discussions are facilitated throughout the school year- NOT just after someone at the school gets tired of dealing with the girl drama. The fourth step you can take is to have a system in place for students to report such incidences.
Students need to know that the issue of relational aggression (RA) will be taken seriously- this is key! Remember, RA can lead to depression, truancy, drop in grades, and even suicide if not addressed. Lastly, model the behavior that you expect from students. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? I’m sure you’re fine in this department but your coworkers might need a friendly reminder that treating people with respect and courtesy can go a long way.
In conclusion, please remember that although research states girls are not more violent, they are becoming more aggressive. The good news is that we know enough about RA to do something about it. Educate yourself; co-workers, and students on an ongoing basis, implement a system for reporting incidences of RA, and role model appropriate behavior. Although it is not as clear-cut as this, following these basic steps will get the ball rolling at your school/program about the issue. Don’t lose motivation- every time you bring light to the issue, you are helping a student find her voice.
P.S. I had a bowl of Kellog’s flakes (with strawberries) and soy milk…what did you have?
Editor’s Note: This piece is a repost from 2009. As the school year is ramping up, so are the social cues, positive and negative. We think this topic is timeless.