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Girls and Relational Aggression: A Review of Odd Girl Out

By Elaine Cassel

Boys are more aggressive than girls. Most bullies are boys. True or False? If you said "true," you share two commonly held myths about gender differences in aggression. Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls by Rachel Simmons (Harcourt Books, 2002) exposes the dark side of female aggression.

When school-age boys have a score to settle with one another, some, though not all, engage in physical aggression. They may tussle, punch, kick, grab, and otherwise engage in physical acts designed to get their way or take out their anger. Most girls do not engage in such overt physical tactics when they are angry or want to exact revenge.

Girls are more likely to taunt, stare at, or exclude the offending girl from the group, tell lies about her, or threaten to withdraw friendship. Contrary to the old proverb, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me," anecdotal evidence and self-reports from girls indicate that many are irrevocably harmed in their school years by the cruelty of other girls. Boys’ scraps and physical wounds heal; girls’ emotional scars may last a lifetime.

What explains this difference in girls' and boys' aggression? Developmental psychology teaches us that at an early age, girls absorb from their parents, peers, and media images that they are supposed to be "nice" and "sweet." They are not encouraged to resolve their differences through fights—as boys often are. Indeed, they are often not taught to resolve their differences at all, but to hide them and not rock the boat. That is part of being "nice."

Ironically, because girls often tend to put more store in close friendships than boys (girls have a few close friends with whom they share much of their lives, while boys tend to have more acquaintances with whom they play and engage in other activities), their aggression towards other girls (but not boys) often involves threatening to and actually destroying relationships. The high value they place on friendship and having another girl as their "bosom buddy" or "best friend" leads them to shut out the best friend who displeases them.

When boys get too rough or aggressive, when their physical aggression tips over into violence, parents, teachers, and even law enforcement step in and draw the line. At least boys learn when they are going too far. But girls’ aggression—what Simmons and psychologists refer to as relational aggression—is insidious. Rarely do outsiders step in. And sadly, the female victims who do confide in their parents, teachers, or school counselors beg them not to intervene, worrying that it will be even "worse" for them if an adult approaches the bully.

Rachel Simmons, author of Odd Girl Out, is not a psychologist, but an under-30 journalist. She visited thirty schools and interviewed three hundred girls from nine to fifteen years of age in focus groups and individually to find out more about relational aggression. The reports are sobering. Very young girls, as young as four years, are bullying, threatening, and shutting out other girls from play groups. Simmons addresses the issue from both sides—the "queen bee" taunters and the dejected outcasts.

Simmons has some recommendations that can help ameliorate this behavior in girls. First, she urges that girls be taught to recognize their anger and not to hide it under the pretense of nothing being wrong or being superficially nice. Granted, this goes against the grain of most female socially learned gender roles. Next, girls should be taught how to communicate their feelings to the perceived offender in non-threatening, assertive language, much as most boys seem to do naturally. "Hey, I don’t like that" or "That really hurt my feelings" can open the door so that the other girl can apologize and make amends. Also, girls need to know the long-term harm their hateful behavior can cause.

Girls who have been taunted and bullied throughout their school years (and, not surprisingly, it seems that once you are in the "out group" you tend to remain on the "outs" in other settings) can experience serious depression and social anxiety. They can learn to hate school and fear engaging in relationships. And the childhood and teenage bullies may grow up to become violent adult women, beating up other girls, knifing, even shooting them. (Physical violence takes a different form in girls, too. For instance, teenage girls and young adult women are less likely than males to use guns and more likely to bite, kick, punch, or knife their victims. Recently, in a suburb of Washington, D.C., three teenage girls pulled another girl out of her car at a red light and punched, kicked and stomped her to death, ending a fight that had started earlier at school).

Parents and teachers need to learn more about these harmful behaviors in girls. They need to look for signs of victimization in their children and students and take appropriate action to stop it.

Odd Girl Out

exposes a harmful behavior pattern that is maladaptive for the perpetrator and the victim. Psychology students, parents, teachers, and counselors will learn how to recognize signs of victimization in their children and students and gain some insight in taking appropriate action to try to stop it. Already, spurred by this book and recent news articles about the topic, some schools are using their own focus or counseling groups to educate girls about the harm their behavior causes and modeling and teaching emotion- and problem-focused coping and communication techniques in order to channel aggression.

Elaine Cassel, Marymount University and Lord Fairfax Community College

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