Female Bullies

Several HMJDS faculty members, including myself, had the privilege of enjoying Rachel Simmons address female aggression at the regional ISACS Conference this past Friday in St. Paul. Her demeanor was refreshing, her presentation crucial and timely, and her message undeniable. The author of Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls  (Orlando, 2002: Harcourt Inc.) presented her message validated through research with spontaneity and truthfulness that made many females in the audience laugh in recognition of challenging times gone by. While Ms. Simmons focused on Odd Girl Out,  she has also written Odd Girl Speaks

Out: Girls Write about Bullies, Cliques, Popularity, and Jealousy and A Study of a Group of

Children of Exceptionally High Intelligence Quotient in Situations Partaking of the Nature of Suggestion. The popular literature has been expanded by Rosalind Wiseman, author of  Queen Bees & Wannabees  and  Queen Bee Moms & Kingpin Dads.  


These books focus on the message that in loving our children, female and male, and in seeking to raise them to be moral, ethical, social adults, we need to depart from our views of bullies as aggressive boys who use actions rather than words to defend their turf, to deal with insecurities, and to establish the leaders and followers. We need to recognize that quiet, often-under-the-radar behavior on the part of girls; social engineering, and subtle actions are just as aggressive and dangerous as the behaviors demonstrated by boys.


Ms. Simmons spoke of “relational aggession, the use of friendship as a weapon: Do this or I won’t be your friend anymore.” She also defined “social aggression as damage to relationships and social status; gossip and rumor.” She thoughtfully reminded us of the many times most of us have heard, “Just kidding,” from a supposedly good friend who had just said something cruel. This behavior she identified as “indirect aggression: when the intent is allegedly not hurtful or is anonymously aggressive.” Finally, she brought us home with a strong landing on our bottoms in mentioning “aggressive body language: nonverbal gesturing, eye rolling, silent treatment, mean looks and noises.”


According to Ms. Simmons, the functionality of girls is defined by their relationships and warned of the serious consequences that occur when interactions take a turn for the worst, when words destroy relationships (“It is there that aggression lives” in female behavior), and when self-esteem lands on the floor. “Girls,” she asserted, “don’t tell each other what they have done wrong or give each other a chance to fix it. They don’t make eye contact, don’t own their responsibility in hurting others, and disengage from consequences, showing [little if any] empathy.” 


Her message is reiterated by Carly Young in Mean Girls: Dealing with Female Aggression, a special report to LifeScript (;  November 30, 2006). She talks about “whispering that stops when [a girl] walks into the room, eyes rolling when

[she] cracks a joke, stony silence when [she] tries to make conversation.” She maintains that “female aggression, cruel behavior is so common that it doesn’t end after high school” but can happen almost anywhere from the water cooler to the PTA meeting. Denese Gray, manager of Equal Opportunity at James Cook University in Australia, is cited by Ms. Young as describing typical female bullies as “devious, vindictive, having a selective memory, needing to control, and excelling at twisting the truth.” They are experts at “backstabbing, giving the cold shoulder” and showing their aggression in passive ways. “They adore gossip,” reports Dr. Cheryl Dellasega, author of  Girl Wars  (Fireside, 2003), also quoted by Ms. Young. 


Research has been done here at the University of Minnesota on female aggression in  preschool.The authors of “Relational and Overt Aggression in Preschool,” N.R. Crick and J.F. Casas (University of Minnesota) and M. Mosher (California School of Professional Psychology) videotaped the interaction of preschool children in a standardized situation and found that relational aggression appears at young ages and can be distinguished from overt aggression.

They concluded that preschool girls are more relationally and less overtly aggressive than boys. 


So what are we, teachers and parents, to do? Dr. Dellasega recommends that we help girls to accept that they may never be good friends with some others, to find a positive female role model, to find something that gives them a  “bigger sense of purpose,”  and not to force their way into a group that is unaccepting. Author Michael Thompson (Mom, They’re  Teasing Me: Helping Your Child Solve Social Problems Random House, 2004, and Raising Cain, Random House

2000, as well as publications for National Association of Independent Schools [NAIS], of which HMJDS is a member), we can help girls cope by encouraging them to focus on friendship, by emphasizing kindness, empathy, and inclusion ourselves, and by discussing peer pressure with them. We can console them, role play and demonstrate positive body language for them, and we can expect them to apologize to their make reparation to their victims in our presence. 


At HMJDS, we also model, teach, encourage, and reinforce appropriate verbal expression of feelings, self-advocacy, problem-solving, and “telling” as opposed to tattling (the former being what we do when we or someone else is being hurt or is in danger and the latter being what we do simply to get others in trouble). 


We take this matter of female aggression as seriously as we take hitting and name calling. We understand that our partnership with you  in this matter, as in all others, begins at the time of admission. We commit to you our ongoing responsibility and dedication to responding immediately when we hear of any aggression and we invite your children and you to share relevant concerns with us just as immediately.