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Socially Adept Female Bullies

Know how to spot the traits

There are common traits that girls who bully other girls share. Curbing girl-on-girl bullying depends on an appreciation of these traits by adults in proximity to head off what can become tragic outcomes.

A grievous example is the suicide of 12-year-old Florida teenager, Rebecca Sedwick. This week two of her female classmates, ages 12 and 14, were charged with felony stalking. According to the Polk County Florida Sheriff, Rebecca’s 14-year-old peer was upset over Rebecca’s former relationship with her boyfriend and as a result bullied her for ten months. The older girl recruited Rebecca’s 12-year-old friend to turn against her, according to the sheriff. The torment included written messages “You should die” and “Why don’t you go kill yourself?”

Understandably, the case is receiving wide attention. Similar news coverage took place after the 2010 Massachusetts suicide of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince. Prince’s death was linked to a three-month campaign of emotional and physical bullying on the part of nine of her peers, seven of whom were girls. Like the Florida case, torment was inflicted because of upset over Phoebe’s brief dating relationship with a particular boy.

The public interest these cases attract brings an opportunity to broaden appreciation of the full bullying process. Because the fact is, it is common for young women to find themselves victimized in this way and for them to suffer intensely even if they do not turn to suicide.

Female bullies are typically socially adept. Research accumulated by the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program shows that teenagers who bully have average to positive self-esteem and generally low anxiety levels. They are often liked by their teachers and peers. They smoothly present two faces to the world. One gains favor with adults, the other is for their social clique where their ability to marshal psychological cruelty gives them power.

Cliques can fall into a pattern of cruel behavior when their young members become intoxicated by the discovery of the power they can exert over another. This can become self-reinforcing behavior within the group and result in protracted viciousness.

Adults tend to focus on the reasons girls give for bullying. It may be that the victim dated the wrong boy at the wrong time or is accused of a social blunder that seems like very small potatoes to outside observers. And because of this, adults may minimize the importance of what is actually going on. The reason is always trivial compared to the time and energy bullies put into attacking their victim. But, the stated reason isn’t actually the point; the real reason for bullying is the sense of power it bestows on the bullies. For some girls, this is an addictive elixir that relieves them of relentless feelings of powerlessness.

How does a girl come to adopt this destructive behavior?

It can stem from her family environment. Research suggests bullies are more likely to have been exposed to violence in their homes. They tend to have parents who do not provide a sufficient ratio of warmth vs. setting limits. Girls raised in an inattentive environment may come to feel as if no one truly cares about them. They live in an emotional world where they are uncertain whether others will be there for them, show interest in them or provide them with love and care when they need it. Having been given no help in understanding their circumstances, they enter peer relationships in a defensive stance. They expect others will have little concern for their wellbeing.

What makes a particular girl vulnerable to being damaged by bullying?

Of course anyone can be the victim of a bully. It can happen in a wide range of settings in childhood and in the adult world. But emotionally maturing teenagers are particularly sensitive to how they perceive other teenagers accept and affirm them. This makes them emotionally vulnerable in a way most adults are not.

So against a general background of teenage insecurity, a 2013 study in the Journal of Adolescence indicates that high school students are even more susceptible to the negative effects of bullying when they have a higher tendency to base their self-worth on the perceptions of others and a lower tendency to lean on their own, intrinsic sense of self-worth.

For some, the way society socializes girls to value themselves in relationship to how others value them creates vulnerability. This includes objectifying women based on appearance. When female identity and self-worth are too closely tied to the opinion of others, the fear of being rejected by a social group is palpable. Thus, becoming the subject of hate and ridicule is experienced as an excruciatingly painful rejection.

One antidote for this is growing up in a warm loving environment where a girl learns that she may express herself, including her intense emotions, negative thoughts and conflicting opinions without risking the loss of that environment. Ironically, this is also an antidote for girls who might otherwise bully.

Ghoul, A., Niwa, E.Y., & Boxer, P. (2013). The role of contingent self-worth in the relation between victimization and internalizing problems in adolescents. Journal of Adolescence, 26, 457-464.

Olweus Bullying Prevention Program 2007, Schoolwide Guide Document.

Jill P. Weber, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and author of Having Sex, Wanting Intimacy—Why Women Settle for One-Sided Relationships. Click here to follow Jill on Facebook or here to follow Jill on Twitter @DrJillWeber