Our guest is Rachel Simmons, featured guest on NBC’s Dateline last night, and author of “Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls.” Chat Producer Will Femia moderates.
MSNBC-Will Femia: Welcome Ms. Simmons.
Question from Carolyn: What is a parent to do when they feel and have evidence that their daughter is being bullied?
MSNBC-Will Femia: Easily the most common question the list so we’ll take that one first.
Rachel Simmons: I think the most important thing you can do is to validate your child’s experience, never tell her that it’s something that she’ll get over, that she’s being too sensitive, that perhaps it was just a joke, that you’re sure the person will be nice to her another day. This is a problem that many girls talked to me about. Girls want to feel recognized for how painful their experience is. Even if you just hold your daughter and listen to her, even if it makes you feel helpless inside, you’re actually doing a great deal for her just being there to listen.
You also, as hard as it is, need to try to take your daughter’s lead on what she wants you to do. I never think it is appropriate for a parent to intervene against her child’s wishes with the school with the rare exception of when you think your child’s life is in danger.
Question from Sheri Christensen: I am a grown women with two children and had an experience with a “mean” girl who was my daughter’s age at the time (13). My daughter is now also bullied. A note — is it true that the apple does not fall far from the tree? As this girls’ Mother appears to be just as evil.
MSNBC-Will Femia: I would ask if victimization runs in the family as well?
Rachel Simmons: There’s no question that aggression can be learned through modeling. When a child sees her parent behave in a particular way she may be tempted or even rewarded for being that way. I have certainly found in my interviews that parallel dynamics can often spring up between the parents of girls putting mothers in situations that are not dissimilar from their daughters. I realize that this can make it even more difficult for the mother of a bullied girl to defend her child. But I also think this happens because we do not live in a culture that defines what girls do as aggressive. Because of that, many girls grow up and continue to engage in these behaviors as adults.
Question from Melanie: I know that I suffer repercussions of girls’ bullying. Is there anything I can do as an adult aside from going to a therapist or taking depression medication? I want to be able to stand up for myself instead of being afraid of what others are going to say about me if I don’t give in.
Rachel Simmons: Melanie, you’re not alone. There is a sad number of women who, because of what they went through, feel they can never trust another friend again. They spend their whole lives trying to determine what it was that was wrong with them that caused them to be treated this way. What I and other people writing on this subject are trying to do is to begin a public consciousness on this subject and to let the women out there like you realize that what happened to you isn’t personal but is in fact part of a larger pattern of human behavior. What I think you can do personally is try to remember this and realize that the new people that you bring into your life will not see you as the girl you were but as the person you are now. The best thing you can do is to try to trust people again and forge new relationships that will allow you some distance from your bad memories.
Question from Melanie: If I were to try to implement programs in the high school I’ll be teaching at someday, what are your personal suggestions? How do you deal with those who think your research and programs are frivolous?
MSNBC-Will Femia: We’ll take the program part of that question a bit later, but let’s talk about the feedback you’ve been getting.
Rachel Simmons: I think there are countless women and girls out there who know exactly what I’m talking about and who, like me, maybe thought that they were the only ones who went through this. The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive because I believe that people fundamentally want to be recognized for what they went through. This issue suffers from silence, it lacks a public consciousness and just talking about it is making women and girls feel so much better. There are those who want to argue that this is just “what girls do”, that this is a rite of passage that every girl must complete. These people will never be convinced of how damaging and painful it is to be hurt in these unique ways. But we know and that’s what counts.
MSNBC-Will Femia: Ah yes, we have that on the question list. Some parents asking if it’s just a necessary part of learning how to deal with the rat race in adulthood.
Question from Bissie: How can I help her? I feel that unfortunately, this is how women grow up and one should learn how to deal with the “bitchiness” because it will exist in some workplaces, etc. But I don’t want her becoming depressed and withdrawn.
MSNBC-Will Femia: There’s an example.
Rachel Simmons: Again, I think we have accepted this behavior in women and girls as something we can’t avoid. What I am saying is that by socializing girls to recognize these behaviors as aggressive and as inappropriate unfulfilling ways to express anger, we can change the way women and girls interact. I’m not saying that getting your feelings hurt and being left out are not parts of growing up. They most certainly are. No child can live in a bubble, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be regulating the more severe instances of aggression simply because they don’t fall into our category of what aggression means.
MSNBC-Will Femia: Have you heard from feminist groups on this topic? What does it do to feminist theories to suggest that girls are as oppressed by girls as they are by boys? Or are the girls are as big a problem to girls as boy are to girls?
Rachel Simmons: I think this has been historically a problem for feminism but it’s one that I think now the movement should be ready to address. When feminism’s second wave began in the late 1960’s, feminists were determined to present a powerful, united front. They used the term “sisterhood is powerful.” It wouldn’t have helped their cause to project a situation of disunity. Now that so many laws have been changed and equality is closer than it ever has been, I believe feminism should now devote some of its energy to less tangible projects such as how girls are being socialized to behave.
Question from Claudia Preston: I agree with the ideas that were presented in the program last evening. My only comment is that this has been going on for years. I am 58 years old and girls were “mean” back in the 50’s when I was in grade school and Junior High (middle school now). my question on that is does this transcend time or is it part of our current modern society?
Rachel Simmons: I think this behavior has always been around. I think as long as women and girls have been expected to be caretakers and to be nice and to be sugar and spice, we have had these behaviors. I think the reason why so many girls go behind each others backs, manipulate and plot revenge in sometimes very coldly premeditated ways is because they don’t feel they are entitled to express their anger directly or vocally. As a result they have to resort to covert, indirect acts. Anywhere girls are expected to be nice you will find this behavior because all girls feel aggression.
Question from Jolene: Have you interviewed the bullies and found out more about them, about their home life, about their attitudes on self esteem, empathy... I would like to be able to help my daughter understand where the bully maybe coming from.
Rachel Simmons: There’s no one reason why a child begins to bully. I’m not a psychologist and so I can only convey what I have read which is that there are multiple factors that figure in to why a child hurts her peers. The child may be modeling what she sees at home. I have also noticed that divorce or the loss of a parent or another kind of major family trauma or problem can predict aggressive behavior at school. The bullies I spoke with talked about being afraid of not fitting in. They became aggressive because they wanted to avoid being a target. They adopted a kill or be killed mentality. I think it’s a mistake for parents to tell their daughters, “Oh, she’s just jealous of you.” This is an all too common response that does not reflect the more complicated issues.
Question from Peyton: In short, I guess my question is - whatever happened to the bullies, and what are the long-term effects on their lives? Are they still bullies?
Rachel Simmons: Some of them are, some of them grow out of it. I think, again because we don’t help girls to understand that this behavior is aggressive, many of them grow into women who believe this is an appropriate way to act. When I was writing this book, I had countless adult women approaching me wanting to tell me their story about their office or their friends. I think that we need a book on that too.
MSNBC-Will Femia: One girl writes… “A year later, I am still torn up over that. I have a story to tell and I would like to be heard and action to take place so that other girls down the road do not have to go through what I went through. Please e-mail me back or call me…”
Do you find yourself regarded as a crusader for bully victims’ rights? You certainly have lots of fans here on the question list.
Rachel Simmons: I feel like I have found a calling for myself in this issue. As depressing as it was to hear all of the stories I had to hear in order to write this book, I feel like I was told them for a reason and I want to be a voice for all of the girls and women who have been waiting for recognition. I think everyone out there can do their part to start a movement to recognize this issue. Everyone can go to their schools and begin to discuss this new research.
Question from bball: Is Rachel available for speaking engagements?
Rachel Simmons: Yes. Anyone interested should contact Jennifer Gilmore at http://harcourt.com
Question from Jolene: I am interested in starting a mentoring program in the local middle school. Where can I get information?
Rachel Simmons: I would consult The Ophelia Project for information on mentoring programs.
MSNBC-Will Femia: Those links are contained in this one... http://www.msnbc.com/news/735674.asp
MSNBC-Will Femia: And there are a lot of question from school administrators here. Can you give them some advice?
Rachel Simmons: I think schools need to revise their harassment and anti-bullying policies to reflect the new research on girls. Right now, most policies favor physical and direct aggression, which are often the province of boys. We need to make these policies more specific to attend to the indirect, covert acts of girls. And we need to teach students about these rules at a young age. Relational aggression is shown by girls beginning at age 3 so we can’t really start soon enough. I’m not sure how much you can prepare your child other than to make sure she is with friends that are true friends, that are friends she can trust.
MSNBC-Will Femia: Also questions on the list about how early to prepare a daughter for middle school social trials.
Rachel Simmons: If you notice your child trying to gain status in a popular crowd or if you believe that she is being left out more than she’s being included, you may want to help her understand that she is endangering herself socially and putting herself at risk as a potential target and a potential bully. The best thing a girl can do is to find and maintain strong, trusting friendships.
MSNBC-Will Femia: Thank you very much Ms. Simmons for your time today.
Rachel Simmons: Thank you very much for your support. Good luck and we’re all in this together.
MSNBC-Will Femia: Ok, one sec for relevant links...
http://www.msnbc.com/news/735674.asp for the Dateline NBC story
http://www.opheliaproject.org/ info on the Ophelia Project
http://www.empowerprogram.org/ info on the Empowerment Program
http://www.msnbc.com/news/735673.asp for an excerpt of Rachel’s book “Odd Girl Out”