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Counselor corner

by Bill Rutherford
| June 16, 2010 9:00 PM

"You're so pretty when you smile," Chloe chimes as Alexis grins, then slowly smiles cautiously as her 9-year-old face wonders the intent. "Oh, I didn't know your teeth were so yellow," states Chloe with a smirk as Alexis' grin turns upside down and tears well on her cheeks while she quickly runs for the safety of the school bathroom stall. Chloe's words hit her target directly and make the anticipated result - wounding Alexis while making Chloe more popular. Claiming Alexis' brilliantly white teeth yellow, she attacked and brutalized. Chloe earned power over Alexis.

Girl on girl aggression is different than boy aggression. Boys might argue, hit each other, and then their argument is over. Girl bullying continues. Girls seldom hit but use their words to injure. Girls lead by putting others down while supporting their own stature. The most popular, pretty, smartest or coercive girls lead others to follow their maladaptive ways. Strong, self-assured, confident girls need no leader but choose their own role in life - these girls continue to be confident. Girls who struggle with their position or confidence allow others to dictate who they're supposed to be. This is not psychologically healthy.

Girls can be mean to each other while being best friends. Much of what I do as an elementary school counselor deals with girl-on-girl aggression. It comes in many forms and starts in first grade. Inviting a friend to a birthday party only if they promise to play exclusively with the invitee, rolling eyes, starting rumors and pitting one friend against another are all forms of aggression. Many see this as a natural part of girlhood and growing up. Parents, teachers and friends say, "toughen up," "it's just the way girls are," "ignore them." This seldom works and is not true. Kind, healthy, confident girls do not behave this way.

I strongly urge all parents to read, "Odd Girl Out," and "Queen Bees and Wanna Bees." Both books offer insight into what really happens inside the tight-knit world of girl aggression. Nearly all girls report faking illness to avoid school due to the humility or aggression of another girl or group of girls. This is so wrong! Understanding the motivation behind girl aggression and working through the aggression with our daughters builds confidence in the girls we raise while bringing us into the real, "Girl World."

Below is a response to an e-mail Rachel Simmons, author of "Odd Girl Out," received. It speaks to girls regaining control of their lives through self-advocacy. I believe the most important factor of a child's success is to have a parent who understands the child and truly listens. Read the following letter with your daughter and ask if she agrees.

Dear Rachel,

How do I deal with my obnoxious, overreacting, jealous, clingy, rude and generally hard-to-deal with best friends?

There are so many things I could say about them. I love them both, I've been best friends with one of them since I was 3 and the other one is her cousin who moved here a few years ago. I love them both to DEATH, but they're INSANE.

Dear Friend on the Verge of Insanity,

Help me out here. You put the words "obnoxious" and "rude" in the same sentence as "best friends?" Ah, forget it. I can't pretend. I wish I could say this was unusual with girls, but it's not.

If you ask little kids to draw you a picture of a bully, they sketch a picture of a tough boy who kicks, beats you up and takes your lunch money. You know, a bruiser, the kind of guy who's been in fifth grade for five or six years, lurks in the playground... you know the drill.

That may be a bully for some people, but not for girls. Most of the time people who bully a girl will be her close or even best friends. They won't do it physically. It'll be subtle, through put-downs and hot-and-cold moods.

Too many of us put up with it precisely because "they're my friends." But just because someone is your friend doesn't mean she might not also be your bully. Friendship is not some all-holy state that gives people license to throw jealous fits, cuss you out, put you down and freak out when you don't fix all their problems (and that is what you describe above).

Every friendship has its ups and downs, no doubt. But if your downs far outnumber your ups, and if your downs come weekly or even daily, you may have a bully masquerading as a friend - kind of like that wolf in sheep's clothing in Little Red Riding Hood.

Except your life is no fairy tale. You're going to have to make your own happy ending. Here's what I'm thinking: lay low for a week. Keep a journal of all the stuff that happens with your friends that bothers you. Write down what happened, when, where, who was there, all those details. You may even want to write a few sentences about how you felt in the moment.

After the week is up, read over your list. Then ask yourself this: if you had a best friend who showed you this journal, what advice would you give her? Would you tell her she was in a toxic friendship and to get out, or stick with it?

If you do decide to stick with it, I urge you to sit down with each friend on their own - not together because they're related and they're clearly tight, which means that if you talk to them together they'll likely be invested in protecting each other and not listening clearly to you - and run through your list. Say something like, "This doesn't feel like a healthy friendship. I need this stuff to change." It's up to you to suggest some alternatives such as, "When you're jealous about me hanging out with her, I need you to just tell me."

I'm not feeling optimistic based on your letter, but I support you in trying to fix this. The only way to do that though is to talk to both of them and make some clear statements about what's not working and what you need to change.

This letter brings us to the real world of girl on girl aggression. Like it or leave it, most girls struggle with this issue. My suggestion: put down the cell phone for a week, eat dinner together, turn off the TV and go to the lake, enjoy outside, talk with your daughter, go for long walks and really hear what our daughters are saying. Sometimes a real person we trust with real advice is better than the Internet and "Seventeen" magazine for life advice. If we want our daughters to be healthy, assertive, strong-willed and kind, we need to teach and model this behavior. Adults make the difference.

Bill Rutherford is a psychotherapist, public speaker, elementary school counselor, adjunct college psychology instructor and executive chef, and owner of Rutherford Education Group. Please e-mail him at bprutherford@hotmail.com and check out www.foodforthoughtcda.com.

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