The Huffington Post recently reported that Jewish girls are affected by relational aggression at least equal to, if not at a greater rate, than the general teen population. Mothers, when made aware of the problem, are sometimes confused as to how and when to effectively intervene. Often, mothers are not even aware of a problem until a more serious crisis develops because their daughters are too embarrassed or ashamed to share such information.
Relational aggression refers to a cruel, yet subtle form of bullying particularly common among girls. It attacks the essence of what girls value — social acceptance. Unlike male bullying in which the bully demonstrates physical dominance, this bullying "takes aim at social relationships and hurts by damaging other's opinions of (and relationship to) its victims." (relationalaggression.com/aboutra.html )
Relational aggression manipulates how others view the victim by exclusion, spreading rumors and lies, exposing secrets, silence, ostracism, humiliation and injuring feelings of social acceptance, which can be far more painful than any physical hurt.
"Cyberbullying" is particularly nefarious because the bully can avoid face-to-face interaction with her victim. While statistics vary, the isafe Foundation (www.isafe.org) reports that:
· Over half of teens have been bullied online, and half have engaged in cyberbullying;
· Over one quarter of teens have been bullied repeatedly through their cellphones or on the Internet;
· Over half of young people do not tell their parents when cyberbullying occurs.
The consequences of relational bullying are severe and potentially long term. They include loneliness, depression, academic decline and, in the extreme, suicide. Further, even those not directly involved are affected, as it creates a hostile culture in school that affects all.
Sadly, parents and other adults often dismiss or misinterpret girl bullying as mere "squabbles" or give well-intended but misguided advice such as: "Just ignore those girls. They're not your real friends, anyway." Others unwittingly encourage their daughters' dominance and aggression.
Parents should be mindful that a powerful aggressor can work the girls and the entire system. Girls are brilliant at using technology and can be brutal with text messaging and Facebook to form alliances and keep the upper hand, making it even more difficult for the victim to escape the demoralization and victimization.
It's very important to be able to recognize signs that your child is being bullied.
Your child may say things like: "I don't have any friends," "Everyone is mean to me;" "No one wants to sit with me at lunch."
Children may complain that they don't want to go to school or they may make excuses, such as they don't feel well.
As parents, you may notice a change in sleeping or eating patterns; your child may begin to show signs of stress, such as nail biting, bed-wetting or stuttering.
You may see your children wanting to change their routine, like repeatedly asking to be driven to school instead of taking the bus.
Some children may start asking if the family can move or change school districts. Your child may even threaten to run away.
What can parents do?
· Listen attentively and validate the emotional content of what a child is saying. Their feelings are real.
· Listen objectively and know that you may not be hearing the whole story.
· Take your child's problems seriously. By listening and not judging, let your child know you are someone he or she can talk to.
· Teach your child about relational aggression; name it and talk about it.
· Join a parents group for information and support and learn additional tips.
Sara H. Wenger, assistant director of education and outreach services at Jewish Family and Children's Service, offers a parenting series funded by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia's Women of Vision. For information, contact her at: [email protected] or call 267-256-2055.