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Mean Girls: Female-to-Female Bullying Often More Subtle, Memorial Counselors Say

While statistics show male bullying is more prevalent, female-to-female bullying is far more subtle.

Bullying has become a national epidemic and can begin as early as when a child starts attending school.

Female-to-female is more likely to be expressed through covert behaviors. It usually involves belittling, exclusion, spreading rumors and gossip, teasing about appearance and accusations of overly sexual behavior.

“It can often be hard to stop this behavior between girls because it is not usually unidirectional,” said Jeanette Hoelzer, a licensed clinical professional counselor and a behavioral health consultant at Memorial Physician Services–Chatham. “A more powerful girl bullies a less powerful girl, and she responds back with her own negative messages so it can be hard to hold the initial bully responsible.”

Bullying occurs most frequently in less-structured environments where adults have less of a presence. With social media at our fingertips, cyberbullies have access to their victims 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

The top four places bullying occurs are social media / cellphones, school buses, cafeterias and hallways.

“Bullying is often reported to me as happening when a teacher isn’t looking, usually during recess or at lunch,” said Ashley Cox, a licensed professional counselor and a mental health specialist who is with the Memorial Weight Loss and Wellness Center.

“I also see bullying happening in families, usually between siblings. When I do family counseling in the home, I notice that siblings are sometimes very comfortable being mean to each other, and we often don’t view this as bullying because we expect siblings to bicker.”

Parents can curb bullying by limiting and supervising social media, cellphone and internet access. Parents can be advocates at school by documenting when and where bullying occurs and requesting concrete actions, such as a no-bullying contract or reducing access to areas where bullying occurs.

"Parents can model positive behaviors in the home by using respectful language and being concise and clear about the expectations between siblings. If bullying is tolerated at home, it is more likely that a child will engage in bullying outside of the home," Cox said.

Self-esteem is a powerful aspect to teach and model. Parents should empower their children to like themselves for reasons other than appearance and what others think.

“I work with kids who bully and are victims of bullying, and I notice that a lot of times kids engage in this never-ending cycle of defending themselves by bullying back and, in turn, learn bad habits for social interaction until something is done to change it,” Cox said. “We have to remember that, developmentally, children don’t think logically and don’t weigh the consequences of their actions. This becomes an opportunity for professionals and parents to inform children about the impact of bullying.”

If you are concerned about someone in your life who is suffering from the effects of bullying, don’t let them suffer in silence. It may be time to reach out to a professional, Cox said. Counselors are available at Memorial Behavioral Health at 217-525-1064.

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