The School Mediator
Peer Mediation Insights From the Desk of Richard Cohen May, 2002

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How Girls Fight

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Welcome to the May issue of The School Mediator.

This month's feature story discusses "relational aggression," a kind of hurtful behavior that girls employ more often than boys.

Wishing you the best, wherever you are,

Richard Cohen
Founder and Director
School Mediation Associates


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How Girls Fight

"Conflicts involving boys are one thing, but fights between girls are the most challenging."

If I had a dollar for every educator who has said this to me with a knowing grin, I could buy each of you a book on the suddenly popular topic of "relational aggression."

"Relational aggression" is the new term used to refer to behaviors that are intended to hurt another person's friendships or sense of inclusion in a peer group. It most commonly takes the form of either social exclusion ("Don't let her sit at our table") or rumor spreading ("If you don't help me, I'll tell Jess that you said she was ugly").

And it is practiced much more by girls than by boys.

Why girls? Girls are socialized to be "nice," to value relationships, and to not be physically aggressive. As a result they tend to:

*Channel their aggressive impulses in more covert ways than their male peers
*Use what they more keenly appreciate and are attuned to: relationships.

And although relational aggression is certainly subtler than a punch in the nose, it can be just as hurtful.

A growing body of research confirms what experienced educators have known for years: It is untrue that girls are not as aggressive as boys; they are just aggressive in different ways.

I was recently in close proximity to the pain caused by relational aggression. Administrators at a small middle school asked me to work with a class that was having tremendous problems with harassment, exclusion, and overall meanness. One boy even had recently been transferred to another school because of his extremely offensive and hurtful behavior.

After meeting with the class as a whole, and then interviewing students individually, I learned that the male students were "fine." They had come through the particularly egregious incident that led to their peer's transfer, had learned important lessons, and were now much kinder to one another.

The girls were having a lot more trouble, however. It became clear to me during our private discussions that they were struggling with the emotional fallout of years of relational aggression.

I have never observed so intricate a tangle of alliances and enemies among such a relatively small group of people. Many girls were former "best" friends with one or more of the girls in rival cliques, and has seen what they had assumed were the closest of relationships transmogrify in an instant into cold shoulders and spiteful rumors. (This is consistent with relational aggression, which often occurs within intimate circles.)

Thankfully, the girls involved in the most immediate conflict made the courageous decision to come together and talk. And after they chose to put the bitterness behind them during our sessions, the tension dissipated for their classmates as well. As I write this today, a month later, the girls report that they are getting along much better.

Lately there has been a burst of coverage about relational aggression in American popular media. Talks show hosts (including Oprah) have talked about it, the New York Times Magazine featured an article entitled "Mean Girls" in February, a number of highly publicized books about it were published this Spring, and two weeks ago, over 4 million 4th-7th graders in the US learned about relational aggression in Time Magazine's school supplement.

I for one certainly hope that all this attention leads educators to:

*Attune themselves to notice this type of behavior
*State unequivocally that relational aggression is unacceptable
*Subject students who engage in it to appropriate consequences


At it's worst, relational aggression is a form a bullying, and it must be dealt with in the way that all bullying is dealt with: With a firm NO to the bully and a protective and empowering place for victims.

But one thing conspicuously missing from popular discussion (at least to a mediator!) is the importance of processes like mediation to help girls (and boys), when appropriate, heal the wounds that result from relational aggression.

Rachel Simmons, author of Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, postulates that girls carry the scars from this malicious behavior into womanhood, where it chronically hinders women from trusting one another. Although I assume that time, maturity and positive experiences heal many of these wounds, my recent time with the middle school girls, as well as informal conversations with friends, colleagues and family, lead me to concur.

All the more reason to encourage young people to heal their relationships by utilizing processes like mediation. School-based mediators have been helping girls (and boys) resolve these sorts of conflicts for almost two decades. As we applaud the recent attention given to relational aggression, let's be sure to use this opportunity to speak up about the tools we already have, tools like mediation, that can make a difference.


Send us your thoughts...


One of the leading organizations helping to raise awareness of relational aggression is The Ophelia Project. Click the link below to visit their site, where you will find an annotated list of print and electronic resources as well as a checklist of helpful actions for parents, teachers, and girls themselves.

The Ophelia Project

 About Us

For almost twenty years, School Mediation Associates has been devoted to the application and promotion of mediation in schools. SMA's mission is to transform schools into safer, more caring, and more effective institutions. Our books and training programs have been utilized by tens of thousands of people around the world.

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