In 1988, when I was fifteen, a classmate had her personal diary stolen out of her school bag, photocopied and taped up on the walls of the senior girls’ toilets. A new student was the target of a whisper campaign – instigated by her former best friend. She felt so ostracised that she was rumoured to have attempted suicide and eventually left the school. Yet another girl regularly started lunch each day by pulling her school bag out of the bin.
Fastforward to this week and the nation watched in horror, footage of a brutal school yard brawl between two teenage girls in Melbourne. It was a sickening attack complete with an enthusiastic, camera-weilding audience. The catalyst? A Facebook bullying campaign that got out of control.
Despite the current hype, female bullying is nothing new. It’s just the devastating impact that experts had – until now – under-estimated.
Behaviour that was once dismissed as girls ‘just being bitchy’ is today acknowledged as ‘relational bullying’. It’s a tag for those age-old, indirect (and often vicious) forms of aggression favoured by girls: backstabbing, exclusion, rumour spreading and the manipulation of friendships. Today it’s recognised as the most pervasive form of bullying amongst girls and boys – perhaps because it so easily goes unnoticed by teachers or parents.
Relational bullying is distinct from physical and verbal bullying because often it’s a silent campaign aimed at inflicting psychological pain on the target and breaking up their relationships with others. It can be as subtle as a withering glance, as painful as lunchtime exclusion and as insidious as an email hate campaign designed to ruin the victim’s reputation.
It’s hardly surprising then that experts now believe that relational abuse is often more damaging to the long-term psychological health of its victims than either physical or face-to-face verbal abuse. Think loss of self-esteem, anxiety, depression, social alienation, absenteeism and suicidal thinking. In the long-term, a formerly bullied child may have difficulty in trusting people, recurring social anxiety and depression.
Of course relational bullying isn’t limited to girls. Although past research has indicated that girls are more likely to be the perpetrators – and the victims – of this more Machiavellian form of aggression.
A point backed up by Rosalind Wiseman, author of the now-famous Queen Bees and Wannabes, the popular non-fiction book designed to help parents guide their daughters through the female politics of school. (It was Wiseman’s book which inspired the film Mean Girls).
When I spoke to Wiseman by phone several years ago, I ask her why girls are more likely to bully one another using methods like gossip and exclusion. Wiseman told me it’s part biology and part sociology.
“Biologically, it’s about girls and their verbal abilities. But in terms of sociology, girls are raised being told that they cannot be straight forward with their feelings when they’re angry and that they are not to be directly confrontational. This leaves girls feeling that they have to do things in a more backhanded, surreptitious kind of way.”
When relational bullying is allowed to thrive in schools, it gives perpetrators an open door to take their behaviour – spreading rumours, excluding others and manipulating situations – into workplaces, sporting clubs, boardrooms and yep – the Internet. Sound familiar?
Acknowledging the seriousness of relational bullying is the first step towards creating a culture that says manipulation and covert aggression are unacceptable … regardless of whether it occurs under the teacher’s nose, via SMS, on Facebook or on the walls of the senior girls’ toilets.
Were you bullied in this way at school? How did you cope? Is your child currently being bullied? Do you know any adult women who still engage in relational bullying today?
Physical signs of bullying in your children
- Unexplained bruises, scratches or cuts
- Torn or damaged clothes or belongings
- Non-specific pains, headaches, abdominal pains
- Fear of walking to or from school or they want to take a change of route to school
- Asking to be driven to school
- Unwilling to go to school
- Deterioration in school work
- Coming home starving (because lunch money was taken)
- “Loss” of possessions/pocket money
- Asking for or stealing money (to pay the bully)
- Have few friends
- Rarely invited to parties
- Become withdrawn
- Unexpected mood change
- Irritability and temper outbursts
- Appear upset, unhappy, tearful, distressed
- Stop eating
- Attempt suicide
- Appear anxious: may wet bed, bite nails, seem afraid, sleep poorly, cry out in sleep
- Refuse to say what is wrong
- Give improbable excuses or explanations for any of the above