Patti Skelton-McGougan | They don’t leave black eyes, but girl bullies can really hurt


She’s charming, popular and gets decent grades in school. Well-liked by teachers and parents, she’s never suspected of being the bully that she is.

For one thing, fist fights aren’t her style. She’s much more calculating and subtle. She gossips, teases, spreads rumors, backstabs, ignores and excludes – all because she likes the power and attention she gets.

“Relational aggression,” a form of bullying favored by pre-adolescent and adolescent girls, gained widespread attention with the best-selling book, “Reviving Ophelia,” by Clinical Psychologist Mary Pipher.

But this brand of bullying is nothing new, and it’s very common in our schools. Many of us probably still harbor at least one painful memory from our childhood of being teased, shunned or even harassed by “the popular girls” or someone we once considered a friend. The fact that it bugs us still is testimony to how hurtful and damaging relational aggression can be.

The effects can be every bit as serious, if not more so, as physical bullying. Victims often experience anxiety, depression and problems in school. They may develop eating disorders, self-harming behaviors, or start taking risks with sex or drugs and alcohol.

Danny Hanson, YES’ violence prevention coordinator, says the problem got to be bad enough for one young woman that she is transferring schools.

“It often takes more time and energy to address girl bullying than boy bullying, and the effects can be more detrimental in the long run than a black eye or a bloody nose,” says Hanson, who provides one-on-one counseling at the Old Firehouse in Redmond and goes into classrooms to talk to students about violence and bullying, including relational aggression.

Unlike boy bullies, who tend to act in the moment, girl bullies can harbor something for months before they strike. Hanson and other experts liken the leaders to “queen bees,” popular, well-protected girls who are at the center of their groups of “worker bees,” manipulating them and holding them together, while avoiding responsibility.

More often than not, Hanson says, victims are friends or former friends who got on the group or queen’s bad side through something as minor as a perceived slight.

Since the victims seldom tell and the bullies are careful about not being caught, the harassment and hurt can go on indefinitely under the radar of caring adults.

Hard as it can be to spot, parents and adults have a role in preventing girl bullying. It starts with becoming aware of the problem and taking it seriously.

Here are some things to look for and keep in mind:

Tune in to your daughter. Is she being excluded from activities that she once attended? Is her best friend no longer calling? Ask her what she needs or wants and how you can support her. Oftentimes, victims are waiting for someone to intervene and protect them.

Engage in open and honest conversation with your teen about her friendships and how her friends treat each other. Discuss with her what makes a good friend.

As a parent and role model, demonstrate kindness and healthy friendships. Don't gossip or make fun of others, and don’t tolerate that behavior in anyone else, including your daughter.

Teach girls to stand up for themselves and their friends and to speak to school administrators if they see bullying happening.

Don’t push your son or daughter to get into the “right” group or activity. Instead, help them make friends outside of school and get involved in a variety of groups and social circles. The Eastside’s three teen centers – at Ground Zero in Bellevue, the Old Firehouse in Redmond, and Kirkland Teen Union Building – all have YES counselors on site and are safe and welcoming places for young people to spend time and make friends.