• Bullies in Disguise
    Girls as young as 3 use social aggression to hurt others. Find out how to short-circuit this behavior early.
    By Suzanne Marie Fanger | February , 2007

    In the popular movie Mean Girls, two cliques of teenage girls become socially aggressive toward each other in school. They play spiteful tricks and say and write cruel things behind one another's backs. While the movie is a fictional comedy, there is a large degree of truth in the groups' cold-blooded behavior: Girls sometimes deliberately mistreat other girls within their own peer groups.
    Many people assume that boys are more aggressive than girls. In fact, girls are equally as aggressive. They simply use different methods to express it. Boys generally act out their aggression physically — typically by hitting, shoving, or kicking. Girls tend to utilize subtler expressions, including those exhibited in the movie — gossiping, group exclusion, and rumor spreading.

    Researchers call this "relational aggression," which includes any behavior that intentionally harms another person's self-esteem, friendships, or social status. It can occur between close friends or in ways that damage a person's relationship with a larger group of peers — and it begins early.

    The "mean girls" phenomenon is most frequently associated with girls around 11 or 12 years old. In truth, bullying is commonly witnessed in children (of both genders) as young as 3. But social aggression is tricky to deal with. Adults often don't see it because it's hard to detect. They also tend to underestimate how distressing it is for the children involved, particularly because both the victim and the aggressor downplay its significance. And even when teachers or parents do suspect something serious, they are often at a loss as to how to resolve the situation.

    During the preschool years, when relational aggression first appears, adults are naturally more attuned to physical bullying. And rightfully so: the wounds from hitting and kicking at that age may be more serious than those from exclusion and gossiping. But the seeds of the destructive behavior are planted early. Consider this scenario between three 6-year-old girls:

    Maya sits quietly at the classroom arts table. Next to her, Chantal and Zoe draw with colored pencils. "I'm drawing a whole field of flowers in front of my house," says Chantal.

    "I'm wearing a fancy pink dress in this picture, Chantal, 'cause I'm going to your birthday party," says Zoe. She turns to Maya. "You can come to Chantal's party, too ... if you follow the rules."

    Maya nods, and looks down at her empty paper. After a pause, she looks up at her best friend and says, "Zoe, I really do have to go to the bathroom! Please?"

    Zoe shakes her head. "It's time to draw. You can't go while we're drawing. Those are just my rules. You have to follow them if you're our friend. Right, Chantal?"

    The girls' teacher walks over. She sees Maya's blank paper. "Maya? What are you doing? If you don't start your work I'm going to have to put your name on the board."

    What's going on? Zoe has made Maya the victim of her covert bullying, and compromised Maya's ability to take care of herself. In addition, Maya is unable to focus on her work.