Bully and Victim

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Bully and Victim, Healthy Living Magazine, Jill Weber, Parenting

Bully and Victim, Healthy Living Magazine, Jill Weber, Parenting

Read previous article of the series:
Don’t Raise Good Girl
Discover her true identity

Society doesn’t deal very well with bullying by girls; yet 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 who are close enough to the situation to cut off what can become deeply tragic events.

A sad for instance is the suicide of 12-year-old Florida teenager, Rebecca Sedwick. This fall classmates were accused of stalking. Charges were filed, but later dropped. On one hand, public outrage demands punishment, but on the other these cases are complicated. Efforts to prosecute usually don’t get traction.

According to the Polk County Florida Sheriff, Rebecca’s peers were upset over a dating relationship she had and bullied her for some 10 months. Criticism included messages such as “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 puts the spotlight on the need to understand 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.

When little girls are conditioned to be “nice” and “sweet” despite how they may really feel on the inside, they do not learn how to tolerate, in a healthy way, their anger and to manage conflict directly. As a result, anger is concealed and conflict is managed through peer manipulation, gossip, shunning, rumors and other passive, but quite hurtful, means.

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

Read: Power of Bullying
Lies in the fear of a victim

Adults tend to focus on the reasons girls give for bullying. It could 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 female bullying differ from male bullying?
Males are more likely to bully in an overt, direct manner— either through verbal attack or physical aggression. Girls and women who bully gain influence by using what is most meaningful to their female counterparts—their desire to be liked and accepted.

For many women and girls, there is an overwhelming fear in being direct about their upset in relationships—they fear ‘rocking the boat’ will lead to no longer being accepted or liked. As a result of this social reality, the female bully’s weapon of choice is unobtrusive, subtle. By using social exclusion and manipulation, the girl who bullies finds a way to keep her relationships intact and simultaneously experiences a sense of release with this covert expression of her aggression.

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 versus 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 well being.

What role do other students play in bullying behavior?
Essentially, bullying events are group events. In addition to the bully and the victim, witnesses are invariably present. Students vary in terms of how active a role they play in this process; some merely watch the situation but do not actively take a positive or negative stance. Other students take on the role of “passive supporters” or even “defenders” of the bully. This group process allows the bully and participants to experience less accountability and guilt for their aggressive behavior and, as such, normalizes these acts of aggression.

In addition, research suggests that students who are bullies or who are the direct followers of the bully usually stick in these roles over time, unless new group norms are promoted. Bullying acts are reduced in schools that teach “anti-bullying norms in peer groups.” These new norms help students to recognize that they can safely move away from being an observer and closer to the role of being an active supporter of the bullied student.

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 1) they have a higher tendency to base their self-worth on the perceptions of others and 2) when they have a lower tendency to lean on their own intrinsic sense of self-worth.

Read: Ask a Shrink

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.

Jill Weber, a licensed clinical psychologist, practices in the Washington, DC area. Dr Weber writes a blog for www. psychologytoday.com and is the author of Having Sex, Wanting Intimacy: Why Women Settle for One-Sided Relationships. Follow her on Twitter @DrJillWeber
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