The Social World of Girls, Part 1

Cliques, popular girls, mean girls, rumors, gossip, exclusion, “behind my back,” secrets, bullying, whispering, being “in,” name-calling, glaring, “she turned her back,” being left out, bossy, being uninvited.

When we spend time listening to girls, their stories–sooner or later–turn to their relational experiences. They share stories of profound and joyous connection and devastating betrayal and loss. They speak of feeling special and powerful; of feeling invisible and humiliated. How can we understand the complex intersection of conflict and connection in girls’ lives? How can we help girls develop the hardiness skills they need to enjoy authentic friendships? How can we support them in dealing with the inevitable conflicts that arise in relationships?

In this first of three articles, I will discuss some of the dynamics contributing to the social & relational experiences of girls. In the second and third articles, I will focus on tips for parents; things you can do to support relational hardiness in your daughters’ lives.

Girls will be girls? Catty, manipulative, and mean are terms we often hear bantered about in descriptions of girls’ & women’s friendships. It’s the stuff of sit-com humor as well as terrifying drama. What is this cultural stereotype about, anyway?

We often see girls playing one of four roles in damaging relational interactions: The Aggressor or Bully, The Target, The Bystander, and the Spoon who Stirs the Pot. Many girls are quick to describe a time when they were the target of some hurtful & secret ridicule. They can also easily describe the times when they’ve felt powerless, watching one friend devastate another–with a glare, an exclusion, or a rumor. It is much more difficult for girls to describe the time when they were the Aggressor or Bully.

There is a telling scene in the movie Mean Girls. After repeated horrifying incidents of relational aggression, the girls are called together in the gym to discuss what’s going on & what needs to change. The teacher asks the girls to close their eyes and raise their hands if they’ve ever been bullied. Without hesitation, all of the girls raise their hands. The teacher asks them to look around and take this in. She then asks them to close their eyes a second time and to raise their hands if they have ever been mean to another girl. Hands go up more slowly this time. But when the girls are asked to look around, they see that virtually all of their peers have raised their hands.

It is not so much that there are “mean girls”; it is that girls, in fact, are sometimes mean. And, their mean behaviors are often indirect ways of communicating about anger, disappointment, jealousy, feelings of powerlessness, and competition. Girls struggle with how to engage in clear, direct, assertive communication–or what we call “brave talk” (with elementary school children) and “straight talk” (with teens)–about conflicts with peers.

Scientists have labeled the types of alternative (non-physical) aggression used by many girls as: relational aggression, indirect aggression, and social aggression. These types of aggression attempt harm through harming friendships, destroying reputations, & devastating self-esteem and social status. These types of aggression usually take place in secret, outside the realm of adult observation.

The Social Context: Pioneering researchers on girls’ development, Lyn Mikel Brown and Carol Gilligan, have helped us understand why girls resort to relational aggression. They point out that our society’s socialization practices still largely discourage girls from direct, assertive (non-aggressive) confrontation. They discuss the pitfalls of expecting girls to be “nice and kind” with few avenues for dealing head on with relational conflict and anger. They discuss the impact of living in a society where effectively assertive female role models are still under-represented in the media and in life. These realities contribute significantly to girls‘ struggles with conflict & interfere with their ability to resolve relational disputes in meaningful ways.

Our next two articles will provide suggestions on steps parents and other caring adults can take to help girls develop their skills for dealing with conflict & anger, engaging in effective “straight talk,” being empowered without diminishing others, dealing with bullying, and developing authentic friendships.


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