by Beth Bryant
If you have a daughter, student, or mentee in 5th grade or higher, you might have noticed that in the stormy midst of all the other changes adolescence brings, there is a definite shift toward the importance of peer relationships (and away from the parents) and the role they play in her life. This is a normal, healthy, important shift toward independence as girls learn how to be a functional part of society.
But, if a girl does not have strong sense of her identity and self-worth built up by the time she enters adolescence, this shift can be negative, as she will define herself by the opinions of her peers and the way they treat her and accept her or don’t accept her.
Between 5th and 10th grades (and sometimes longer), many girl-girl peer relationships are all about status, power, approval, and affirmation.
Adults in the girl’s support system (parents, teachers, youth leaders, mentors) should recognize that relational aggression (the psychological term for “mean girl” drama) occurs frequently. The chances that your girl will deal with some aspect of relational aggression is very likely. This aggression occurs when there is a power struggle within a girl’s peer group or when any girl of the group acts physically, mentally, or emotionally aggressive toward another to protect or promote her own status.
Actions can be physical or mental, from threatening or isolating/excluding others, to spreading rumors and insults, online or in person. It’s important to note that girls tend to bully differently than boys do. Girl bullies tend to have plenty of friends, good social skills, do well in school, and know the girls they are bullying. With a group of friends, girls can act in packs to isolate and exclude “outsiders.”
Peer group structure is important to understanding your daughter’s or your student’s needs: The hierarchy breakdown below from Rosalind Wiseman’s Queen Bees and Wannabes is incredibly helpful in decoding the social world of girls.
- Queen Bee: operates through some combination of charm, power, money, looks, strong will and manipulation. The ruler of the social group—others will obey her commands because they’re afraid of her or they want to be associated with her to promote themselves socially.
- Sidekick: second in command—copies the QB and carries out her commands when the QB is not around. She does everything QB wants her to and usually gangs up on other girls with QB. The sidekick can sometimes change for the better if she is separated from the QB.
- Banker: gathers information about other girls and stores it up to use for her own agenda or to give herself more social power. This girl often appears to be trustworthy and friendly (otherwise she wouldn’t get the info in the first place.)
- Torn Bystander: senses the QB is wrong, has a conscience and wants to do what’s right but feels powerless to help because of fear of the QB or because she’s devoted to the group.
- Wannabe/Pleaser: grovels at the feet of the QB and will do anything to gain her approval and acceptance. She doesn’t realize that while the QB is using her to do her dirty work, she is also mocking her.
- Floater: This girl floats easily between peer groups and doesn’t give them too much power over her because she is confident about who she is. She’s friendly to other girls, likeable, and doesn’t feel the need to have the QB’s approval, so she mostly stays out of the Girl Drama game. HINT:: these are the girls we are trying to build.
- Target: She can be inside or outside the peer group, but she is the victim of the group’s humiliation for many possible reasons (guys, how she looks, what she wears, challenging the power structure of the group, holding different beliefs, etc.) The Target will rarely tell her parents about the abuse she suffers and she will often just withdraw—physically, emotionally, or even both.
So what can you do to help your girl navigate the rocky waters of adolescent peer relationships?
- Teach her to build her relationships to be less about competition, comparison, and approval based on arbitrary cultural trends to build them around acceptance, common goals, support, and sharing and loving Christ. (Bible studies, all-girl small groups, discipleships, exercises in encouragement, church attendance that is an integral part of the student’s life– not just casual attendance—are all great ways to foster those relationships.
- If you’re a youth worker or ministering to girls, understand who the QB and Targets are in your group. Look for the girl others emulate and look out for the ones others isolate. Some will also isolate themselves in protection if they think they won’t be accepted.
- Don’t be deceived. Even pre-pubescent girls are very capable of manipulation. Even if a girl knows all the right Bible answers and plays the role of a good Christian, she can still perpetuate Relational Aggression. Our social media driven culture with its easy access and permanent nature (once online, always online!) make it very easy to do this behind the protection of a screen (even for less courageous girls).
- Know when to remove your girl from a bad peer group. Sometimes it’s best to stick it out and keep training her. Sometimes it’s necessary to take action and change schools or even churches.
- Teach girls from an early age that their value comes from God and His approval is what they really need. Teach them outward focus and help them to see the real needs of the world outside their “bubbles” or cliques. Remind them that this season may FEEL permanent, but it’s not forever!
- Watch for deeper signs of stress, anxiety, isolation and depression. Remember Targets tend to internalize it or just try to “deal with” the aggression rather than letting any adults know about it.