- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 20, 2003

Many girls are waging a war in their back yards, on the playground and even in the classroom.

"You can't come to my birthday party unless you give me that box of juice."

"We have to play this game my way, or I won't play with you at all."

"You're my best friend not hers."

Exchanges such as this play out daily as girls of every age, social class and ethnicity struggle with social relationships and issues of aggression.

Actually, girls and boys are equally aggressive, but they usually express such feelings differently, social scientists say. While boys use physical harm or its threat to get what they want, girls are more likely to hurt others by wreaking havoc on relationships with peers or by sabotaging other girls' feelings of acceptance.

Girls who practice such behaviors dubbed "relational aggression" might purposefully ignore someone when angered. They might spread rumors about a child they don't like. Or they might even instruct friends to stay away from a specific classmate as a way to retaliate.

Friendships are golden to girls, and many child-development practitioners agree that it's this intrinsic value that is vulnerable. Teaching girls to face conflict, express anger directly and create supportive relationships with other girls is key to helping them avoid relational aggression.

Psychologist Nicki Crick has been studying girls for 11 years to understand the role of gender in expressing feelings such as anger and desire. A professor of child development at the University of Minnesota, Ms. Crick has looked at hundreds of children as young as 2.

In 1992, she coined the term "relational aggression," and it has been a buzzword ever since for the sort of backhanded, often surreptitious behavior that can drive girls to distraction and more.

Children learn such strategies early, she says.

"As toddlers, girls and boys are equally likely to be physically aggressive with no sex differences; that's a pretty well-known finding," Ms. Crick says. Something happens during the preschool years, however.

"Around the age of 4, girls' engagement in physical aggression drops off dramatically but it doesn't for boys. We don't know the reason, but suggestive research says that the drop occurs around the same time that girls begin to understand what it's like to be a female in our culture," she says. "There's a side of physical aggression that goes along with being tough and cool that's part of the male gender role, but we want our girls to be nice."

Teachers and administrators underscore this perception.

Boys call the shots in the cultures of middle and high schools, says Sharon Lamb, author of "The Secret Lives of Girls: What Good Girls Really Do Sex Play, Aggression, and Their Guilt."

For girls, she says, "status depends on boys liking them. This supports girls not being supportive of each other it puts them into competition. It's a whole cultural phenomenon where we're interested in the betrayal of girls and we kind of support that mythology, ignoring the depths of friendships in girls' lives."

American culture doesn't encourage boys' friendships except in teams, says Ms. Lamb, a professor of psychology at St. Michael's College in Colchester, Vt., and a clinical psychologist in private practice.

"Friendship is important to everyone," she says. "It's not that [girls friendships] are more important, it's just that boys aren't as good at developing them."

The media foments issues of gender and power as well, underscoring messages of the different expectations for boys and girls.

"The evil villain these days is the cheerleader," says Lyn Mikel Brown, a professor of education and human development at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. "Now we have girls set against each other."

The girl-power commercials are about makeup and hair and dolls, she says. Boy toys are about action things.

"The notion that girls can have real power is not out there in a big way."

The stereotypes are repeated by parents within the four walls of their daughters' homes, too, says Ms. Brown, author of "Girlfighting: Betrayal and Rejection Among Girls," to be published this summer.

"We have assumptions for what makes a good girl and what makes a good boy, and they're different," she says. "Good girls are compliant and compassionate and kind. What we don't really do is push them to get out in the world and be assertive and aggressive when it's appropriate to do so."

In the trenches

Shannon Holmes sees many students as a school psychologist for the Prince George's County School District. Boys are content with accomplishments, while girls find it important to be accepted and to have a friendship group, she says.

Parents play into the equation, Mrs. Holmes says.

"Parents are very happy when their girl students are well-liked at school," the former kindergarten teacher says. "With boys, the parents seem much more concerned with grades and their athletic accomplishments. That's what I see on a regular basis."

Relational aggression occurs in the schools inasmuch as girls will use what is most important to them their friendships to get what they want, she says.

Situations involving this manipulative behavior most likely occur in the classroom or during unstructured times, such as lunch and recess, she says, and typically the classroom teacher will handle them. Sometimes the guidance counselor may be called in and when available, peer mediators are scheduled, particularly at the secondary level, to address such issues.

"I feel, though, that it is not a new phenomenon nor do I observe it to such an extent that it seems epidemic or especially problematic," she says. "In my experience, I've not seen relational aggression occurring to such a severe degree that it is brought before the multidisciplinary teams on which I sit at my schools."

Girl Scout leader Vycki Myers of Waldorf, Md., says she sees evidence of relational aggression in just two or three of the 16 girls, ages 9 to 12, in her troop.

"They are some of the older girls in our troop and are more extroverted than most of the other girls," Ms. Myers says. "These girls will group themselves together and feed off one another. They are more likely to speak out of turn, often needing to comment on just about anything that is said. It's almost like they can't control it. Also, they don't mind getting pulled aside for their tactics. I think they like the attention."

Interestingly, she says, these are the girls who are more likely to be placed in leadership roles by the other children.

"The other girls like them," she says. "They think they are fun."

Actually, girls who frequently exhibit manipulative behavior fall into two patterns, Ms. Crick says. They either are both highly liked and highly disliked, their social status is controversial; or they are just disliked and their social status is rejected.

"My guess is that probably the kids who like them are those who they've taken under their wing, so they can have a certain amount of power," she says. "We also do find that kids who were highly relationally aggressive at the beginning of the school year may enjoy a certain amount of popularity with some kids for a while, but it catches up with them. Other kids discover they have other options."

Meeting the challenges

Rachel Simmons says she talked to hundreds of girls and women while researching her book, "Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls." She has received letters from women in their 70s and 80s thanking her for what she has written, reinforcing her conviction that this social manipulation has been occurring "forever."

"From an evolutionary standpoint, [relational aggression] has enabled women to survive and protect their offspring," she says, because it has allowed them to express their emotions, including anger, minus any accompanying physical threat.

Girls learn particular behaviors from their mothers, says Ms. Simmons, and many women "have problems with someone being mad at them. There's an equation that girls grow up learning: 'If I am angry with someone, they will not want to be my friend anymore. Conflict will terminate my relationships and leave me alone,' which for girls is a terrifying thing."

Ms. Simmons relates a common power play featuring conflict avoidance among girls:

"We're really good friends. You start hanging out with someone else a lot, and I feel threatened by that. Instead of talking to you, I go and hang out with someone you don't like to make you jealous and angry. Maybe I walk by you with this new girl and I say something loudly about how I'm really excited that we'll be hanging out together this weekend."

She says parents can help their children weather these situations by modeling more appropriate behavior.

"Have [your child] role-play with you," Ms. Simmons says. "You play one friend and she plays herself. Express feelings that are negative to each other. Then try it again."

Role-playing exercises are a good time to ask children to think about how someone else might feel, says Holly Nishimura, director of community relations at the Ophelia Project, an Erie, Pa.,-based nonprofit children's advocacy organization.

"Exercises in empathy can help children see that relational aggression can be very painful," Ms. Nishimura says. "And don't miss that teachable moment when your child is sharing his or her pain to state that retaliation is not the answer.

"Relational aggression can easily become a cycle of children 'striking back' that they cannot end without adult assistance."

To be sure, parents always want to know what they can do to help their children suffering through relationship problems with their peers, Ms. Nishimura says.

"One thing we don't get is calls from parents saying. 'Help, my child is an aggressor,' " she says. "But the research shows that victims and aggressors are susceptible to the same kinds of psychological problems."

A tack that makes sense is to assume that all children have been the aggressor at one time or another.

"When you assume that the same way we assume all children have been physically aggressive at one time or another then you can talk without the drama and shame," Ms. Nishimura says.

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