Female bullying is on the increase in Ireland according to a study carried out by the National University of Ireland, Galway in collaboration with the World Health Organisation. This increase contrasts with a decrease in most other countries. The reasons for the increase in girls bullying are not clear and many hypotheses are being put forward – most especially, the move towards an equal and unisex society. Whilst societal changes may be the circumstances in which bullying occurs, it is an individual girl that actually does the bullying! To lay responsibility on society effectively takes away responsibility for one’s actions from the individual who perpetrates the threatening behaviour. In any case, what is all the surprise about? It has been shown many times that mothers perpetrate more violence towards children than fathers do and it was inevitable that female aggression was going to spill over into peer-peer and adult-adult relationships as well. Not that the latter hasn’t been happening – many men experience physical violence from their female partners, but they have been slow to voice their experience due to fear of being called ‘a wimp.’ In a culture where women were held up as the kind, motherly and gentle gender, much of female violence was hidden, also because of the fear of judgement.
The reality is that women are human beings – just like men – and are just as capable when feeling frightened, threatened, frustrated, put upon, criticised, all stressed out – to physically and verbally lash out. Similarly, teenage girls, when feeling inferior, insecure, unhappy and direly needing recognition may bully their peers in order to reduce the threat they may pose to them or to get recognition from their peer gang. Whatever the source, girls like boys, can resort to verbal and physical intimidatory behaviour. Certainly, the developing culture of gender equality does provide the permission for females to ‘act out’ but it is a person who perpetrates intimidatory acts, not society. It is only by examining the individual story of the female (or male) that one can truly get to understand and find ways of resolving the underlying insecurities to the bullying behaviour.
Make no mistake about it, female bullying can lead to considerable misery to those who are being bullied – depression, ‘drop-out’ from school, self-harming, suicidal thoughts, attempted suicide and suicide itself. Whether it is boys or girls who are doing the bullying and no matter where – home, school, school bus, community, sports club – it is crucial that adults are keeping a watchful eye on how young people are relating to each other. Of course, adults need to make sure that they themselves are not engaging in bullying behaviour; if they are, then they are in no position to challenge young people’s bullying. In terms of females bullying females, there needs to be a very loudly spoken and postered message that any experience of bullying be reported immediately to the adult in charge. It is also important that the young person talk to a peer who can be supportive. We need to remember that for a long time in Ireland passivity was the more likely defence that would be adopted by females and bullying the more likely response of males. What both girls and boys require are models and a culture that promotes assertiveness and authenticity, but then individual adults have a long way to go in demonstrating such maturity. Culture is the collective of individual responses and a culture only matures when individuals take responsibility for self and their own actions.
A greater openness towards and an appreciation of the emotional and social upheavals experienced by teenage boys and girls and an acknowledgement of the considerable academic and peer pressures they can be under, particularly in school, will definitely help in the understanding of female and male bullying and passivity.
Whether it is passivity or bullying that is been shown, the response needs to come from an understanding that these two defensive reactions mask fears and insecurities and resolution lies in resolving that inner turmoil and not in judgement and condemnation of the threatening responses. During the road to resolution, definite boundaries need to be established around the dignity of each person, male and female, within any social system, until they are in a position to withstand themselves the slings and arrows of those who have not yet reached such maturity.
Dr. Tony Humphreys practices as a clinical psychologist and is author of several books on practical psychology including The Power of ‘Negative’ Thinking.