Sunday 19 November 2017

Girls not as nice as sugar and spice

Girls as young as five are using manipulation and cunning in a bid to gain the upper hand over their friends -- it's their way of dealing with anger

Ailin Quinlan

Welcome to the world of little girls. It's a place of princess bedrooms and birthday parties, notebook covers adorned with heart and rainbow doodles, where best friendships are formed within seconds and confidences exchanged amid smothered giggles.

Alas, as author and social worker Signe Whitson points out, the carefree insouciance doesn't last -- the doodles become closely guarded notes for the exclusive attention of 'BFFs' (Best Friends Forever) and birthday parties transform, seemingly overnight, into powerful tools of exclusion as the guest list becomes a method of gaining supremacy and exacting revenge.

There are no warning signs marking this slow, remorseless transition into a universe where friendship is a weapon and displeasure is concealed behind an angry smile.


Long before the school anti-bullying campaign begins, our little girls are receiving a solid education in the politics of subtle social aggression.

"It's innocent to begin with, but girls suddenly stumble on the realisation of how much power they can wield by excluding someone in their group and it doesn't take long before you have five, six and seven-year-olds doing it very intentionally," says Whitson, author of 'Friendship and Other Weapons'.

"That's why I talk about friendship being a weapon.

"Millions of young girls grow up in the belief that being angry means not being nice. They conform to a social norm where they have to stifle their anger.

"In girl world anger cannot be voiced directly so girls express themselves in passive-aggressive ways using friendship and exclusion as weapons.

"Little girls learn early on that being mad is bad but the anger comes out in ways that are really damaging to their relationships.

"It centres around using friendship and the implied threat that the friendship is going to be taken away."

Whitson gives the example of how the birthday party can be the ultimate weapon.

"You have the guest list and it's all about who's invited and who's not invited. Even though the birthday party is just one day, for weeks before that there's all this talk about it and who is going."

The same applies to school lunch-breaks, where only certain girls sit together, while others are systematically excluded.

"It all happens under the radar of adults," she says. However, if an adult does catch on, she says, it's easy for the girls to say they didn't mean it, while the victim is left in no doubt that this is a pattern of bullying.


This is familiar territory to Josephine*, an experienced headmistress and teacher who has worked in both mixed and all-girls primary schools for many years.

"Boys are more physical when they fall out with their friends than girls -- there can be kicking and hitting and fighting with each other but they seem to get over it very quickly and go back kicking a football together again," she says.

"Girls are much better at pushing the emotional buttons of other girls. They know how to hurt with words and use exclusion regularly."

Josephine recalls an incident in which a distressed eight-year-old reported that some of her friends wouldn't let her play with them. The reason? They all had pink teddy bears and she didn't.

"Later on I went into that class and talked about exclusion and did a bit of role play on it. I find this works very well."

Birthday party guest lists are a minefield she admits but because it's an out-of-school activity, there's little the school can do.

However, Josephine believes, exclusion is not always about anger.

"It can also be about the fact that someone dares to be different. It could also be envy or resentment or jealousy because they see someone as a stronger personality," she says, adding that exclusion is also a subtle way of taking another girl down a peg or two.

When girls want to get at another girl, they will resort to the weapons they have, explains Professor Mona O'Moore, Director of the Anti-Bullying Centre at Trinity College, and author of 'Understanding School Bullying -- A Guide for Parents and Teachers'.

"They will not necessarily use physical ways of showing anger because this would be frowned on by society -- little girls use exclusion as a means of expressing aggression."

Research has shown, she adds, that girls will use psychological methods, either verbal or relationship bullying, which is about manipulating relationships.

"To put someone out in the cold is extremely hurtful. They understand what is effective and what is not."

They also realise that the risk in doing this is not as great as, for example, kicking or hitting.

"It is quite smart and cunning compared to the boy who lashes out," says Prof O'Moore.

When girls get older, says Whitson, things move into the arena of texting and social media.

"There's a limit to what people will say to your face but when it's just a case of pushing a button there's something about the anonymity of social media that enables kids to say things that are much more hurtful and can reach a whole class all at once."

Julie MacDougald has seen the politics of exclusion first-hand with her daughters.


"One of them would talk about a girl who only wants to play with her," says the mother-of-three from Dublin, adding that she's also overheard her daughter openly refusing to allow another little girl to play with her.

Sometimes, she says, her daughter complains that her playmates will talk to each other and then refuse to reveal what they're saying.

"Friendship is hugely important to little girls. As they get older they are definitely thinkers -- they think about friendship and as they get older they use friendship," says MacDougald.

"If they're jealous of someone they may try to exclude her, or they will gang up on one girl if they feel she shouldn't have ownership of something. The younger ones will say 'you're not my friend any more' if someone displeases them.

"They're very much vying for friendship between the ages of six and eight. Friendship is a big bargaining chip and at the flick of a switch they mightn't be someone's friend anymore!

"Exclusion is a reaction to something they'd be displeased about," she says, adding that while they may not really understand the full impact of their behaviour, they know it upsets the other person and allows them to get their own back on her.

"Later on, at about the age of nine, jealousy is a big reason for problems -- it can cause inclusion or exclusion.

"Girls taking sides is a big thing. The threat of losing friendship is big and that's something that can be used, whether they are knowingly doing it or not."

*Not her real name

'Friendship and Other Weapons: group Activities to Help Young Girls Aged 5-11 to Cope with Bullying' by Signe Whitson, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers €23

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