LIKE CHAOS...The Painful Experience of Girl to Girl Bullying

By Jodi S.W. Campbell

She sits in front of me with bangs in her face and a sheepish look. She seems to be wondering what kinds of questions I’m going to ask. Half scared, half excited, I can tell that she is full of experiences and wants to share her story. But, when I ask the first question she struggles to find the right word to describe it. “What is your experience with female bullying?” She looks at me, thinks for a minute and eventually says, 

“It’s harsh.”
Her eyes are honest and her voice has something more behind it, like those words imply a short lifetime of delivering and receiving pain at the hand and word of others. She admits that she has been both victim and aggressor in this complicated game, but hastens to explain that either way she feels badly in the end. In the moment she feels an emotional release when acting out towards another, but afterwards comes the guilt and the regret. She knows that once again, she fell victim to the vicious cycle of feeling badly about herself, receiving abuse from others, counter-attacking them, then feeling badly about herself once more. It’s a downward spiral, a vortex from which there is no easy escape.

With encouragement the young girl is able to more fully describe her experiences. A victim to many types of abuse in her young life, she describes the uniqueness of girl-to-girl bullying as seeming to have very little rhyme or reason. It’s about jealousy, poor self-image, status, attention, boys, power and many other things. She tells me that sometimes, people kill themselves because of bullying. She is surprised when I tell her that there is a significant debate about whether bullying can actually “cause” suicide. I explain that some people believe suicide only occurs when bullying is just part of the problem. She looks at me like I’ve just dropped down from another planet and started speaking another language. With a look of utter confusion on her face she says, “Well, they’re wrong. It happens.” She sighs and I imagine that the words behind that sigh might be, “Grown-ups really just DON’T get it.”

Do grown-ups forget what it’s like to experience relational aggression as a young girl? Grown women I’ve talked to about their experience tell me, “Absolutely not.” From the experiences they remembered from growing-up years, bullying starts young. Some of the women told me that they weren’t sure they even wanted to retrieve the memories in order to share with me because they were so painful. Some told me that the memories invoked involuntary tears even now. Others had a visceral response, giving me a very detailed description as if it had happened yesterday. These women talked about the fear they experienced every day of their lives, about not wanting to go to school, about loneliness. The memories are imprinted with very strong emotion, and I think there is a wish that we could go back to that time knowing what we know now.

But even though the scars from the past remain in adulthood, it’s certainly very different to look back on it than to experience it firsthand and perceive it with a still-developing brain. And let’s face it, some people who are casting their opinions in public forum about bullying quite possibly were the bullies we grew up with. It’s natural that they also might have a different opinion. I’ve been all over the United States talking to young girls, teachers, school officials, counselors, therapists and parents about bullying, and the opinions vastly vary. You might be surprised to know that many of them truly minimize the experience believing it to be a “rite of passage” or “character-building experience.” Many adults don’t know what to do with it. Even though research has greatly increased on the topic of bullying in recent years, the typical layperson (parent, coach, youth group leader, troop leader) still may not know how to catch it, or how to address it effectively. It’s much easier to say, “Well, I didn’t see it,” or “My child would not do that,” or “She had many other problems besides bullying when she killed herself,” to make ourselves feel better about a phenomenon that we all seem to understand on some level, but may not know how to prevent or stop … in particular, if it’s happening in cyberspace.

Adults can’t seem to decide whose jurisdiction it is when the bullying takes place outside the school environment. Police? Parents? No one? Anyone? Women I talked to who were bullied as children say that the primary responsibility is with parents. “It starts at home,” I heard over and over.

Another young girl I spoke to was also at a loss for words at first when I asked her to describe the experience of female bullying. It was obvious that she had firsthand experience as a victim, but couldn’t seem to find a word that captured the unpredictable hostility that governed girl-to-girl bullying until she said, 

“It’s like chaos.”
I could see her emotions heat up as she began to explain what she meant. She was talking about “drama” and how girls seem to create problems when they aren’t even there just to hurt each other. When I asked her why, she shrugged, saying, “I don’t know. That’s why I hate girls.” From what she’s telling me, I imagine it’s like being in a dark room with someone who is throwing things at me. The aggressor can see me but I can’t see her. I never know what’s coming or when it’s coming and I’m afraid. It’s out of control … chaos. How does a young girl defend herself against that?

“It hurts.”
Simple truth. The small fragile-looking girl in front of me says it all. She’s smiling weakly but her sad eyes tell me that the victimization she has experienced has done little to “build her character.” Her character is still developing as she straddles childhood and adulthood. Stressors surround her in every domain of her life – home, school, treatment, social life. She has a hard time articulating the things that could help. Beyond listening to her feelings, what really could an adult do to help? If we talk to the bully or the bully’s parents, we may end up making things worse. If we go to the school, we may get an apathetic response. If we go to the police, we may hear that nothing can be proven. But, she explains, an adult could just be there, so she doesn’t feel so alone. Maybe the adult and the girl could work on ways to make her stronger and less of a victim. And maybe that would help.

But more than talking and beyond listening … is believing. The girls tell me that so often they reach out for help and people just tell them that there is nothing that can be done, or it can’t be proven or just “ignore it.” After awhile they might give up trying to seek help and either settle into the role of perpetual victim or turn into what they despise in order to survive. However, when someone believes them, it provides validation for their experience and inspires hope.

When I asked grown women what they thought could help prevent bullying they agreed that, when they were young, it seemed like nothing really would work. But, today if their children were being bullied they insist they would not let it slide. They would go to the school, go to the parents or whatever it took to protect their children from the same experience – or at least to send a message to their children that they would not stand by and let them be hurt.

So, in the end there are still more questions than answers. If nothing else, conversations with these fragile young women and grown women bearing scars of bullying teach us that more work is to be done. We need outcome research on bullying programs, resources for young people, better support from law enforcement and legal system for extreme cases and a culture change that says bullying is NOT a rite of passage. It is not just “kids being kids.” It is social brutality that has long-reaching and sometimes fatal outcomes.|