Katie: “There was this fight in the lunchroom today, and the kids rolled under a table so none of the teachers could break it up.”
Dad: “That sounds hard to watch. Did the boys get suspended?”
Katie: “No, Dad; this was two girls.”
Dad: “Oh. Do girls fight much at your school?”
It seems that more and more frequently today we’re hearing stories of girls—including privileged middle-class girls–getting into serious trouble with fighting. I remember an uproar from a hazing incident that turned violent in Northbrook, Illinois, a solidly upper-middle-class Chicago suburb.
It was difficult to miss the videotape of senior girls dumping buckets of noxious waste over the heads of junior girls as a welcome to their final year of high school. Several girls were seriously hurt when the seniors were egged on by boys watching the melee. It was a shocking video, and around the country parents, teachers, and others began to wonder, What is going on with our girls?
Media Overplays Problem
But parents can take a deep breath and keep the whole subject of how to deal with girls’ violence in perspective, says Meda Chesney-Lind, a criminologist and authority on girls and violence. “There’s no need for anybody to panic over girls’ violence,” she says. “It has always been there.” Basically, says Chesney-Lind, we’re more concerned with girls’ violence now because we’re more concerned about violence in general than we were 20 years ago, and girls are getting wrapped up in that. “Girls engage in much more physical violence than the stereotype permits, so it’s easy to periodically rediscover it,” she adds.
Chesney-Lind isn’t suggesting that parents simply accept a certain level of violence, or that we expect our girls to fight. Instead, we must plan for and teach our girls ways to deal with physical aggression. But as an overall societal concern, girls are still far less likely than boys to use their fists to “deal with” their problems.
“But wait,” any reader of FBI statistics might say, “the long-term trends are certainly disturbing.” And it’s true that between 1992 and 2001, violent assault charges against girls under 18 jumped 23 percent, according to the FBI. By contrast, in the same period, violent assault charges against boys under 18 dropped by almost 21 percent.
Yes, Chesney-Lind allows, those are accurate statistics. But she goes on to remind us how statistics can be deceiving. Chesney-Lind has been studying girls and violence for a decade, and the only area in which girls’ violence is increasing is enforcement. For example, 10 years ago, a mother may not have called the police if her daughter slapped her, or if she did, the officer may not have arrested the girl. Today, the officer is more likely to charge the girl with domestic violence. In other words, says Chesney-Lind, what’s really increasing is the awareness of girls’ violence and the likelihood that enforcement agencies will charge girls.
Nevertheless, violent assault charge numbers demonstrate that girls’ violence still pales in comparison to boys’ violence. In 2001, according to the FBI, U.S. boys under 18 were charged with 26,302 aggravated assaults. That same year, girls were charged with 7,814 aggravated assaults.
Emotional Violence Too
But that doesn’t mean that your girl isn’t dealing with some awful stuff in her group of friends, Chesney-Lind says. And girls need to learn the skills that can help them cope with the violence that’s out there. Parents can be their guides, helping them from the beginning to be strong and capable of understanding and coping with the mercurial nature of adolescent girl relationships.
Girls start hearing early in life that they should be “nice” and attractive to boys and men. From nursery rhymes (“Sugar and spice, that’s what girls are made of”) to covers of fashion magazines (“How to keep your man”) to advice from adults (“Act like ladies”), girls get a pretty clear message about how to get along in this world.
But as any parent of an adolescent girl will point out, girls aren’t all sweetness and light. Teaching girls ways to confront their pain, anger, and frustrations with one another without resorting to physical or emotional violence is one of a parent’s biggest challenges, says Jack Spencer, associate professor of sociology at Purdue University. Adolescence is the time when girls develop their identities–trying on emotions, checking out responses. It’s also a time when parents need to let their girl be herself and explore her options, yet still stay involved in her life.
Most girls won’t ever be involved in a situation as extreme as the hazing in Northbrook, says Spencer, but parents nevertheless should talk with their girls about forms of violence they are likely to confront, such as lying, name-calling, rumor-spreading, and shunning. Also, when girls get in a group, they sometimes do things together they wouldn’t dream of doing on their own, such as vandalism or shoplifting. One way to inoculate against such behavior is to talk to your daughter about the real possibility of confronting these issues. How would she deal with it? How would you like her to behave?
Parents should learn about their girl’s culture, be involved in her life, and know who her friends are, Spencer says. Know where she’s going, with whom, and what they’re going to do. If the phone stops ringing, your girl seems depressed, or a close friend suddenly becomes an enemy, find out why.
Treat Her Troubles Seriously
And if you’re lucky enough to have your girl come to you for help, treat her with all the respect you would afford a friend with a serious problem, says Glenn Stutzky, a clinical instructor in the School of Social Work at Michigan State University. Stutzky works in schools around the country helping teachers and law enforcement officials recognize and address bullying issues. Bullying can lead to violence if it isn’t dealt with directly, he says. “If our daughters come to us, the bell needs to go off in our heads: Set down the paper, stop doing the dishes, and give her your full attention. That will let her know that you’re taking it seriously.”
“Listen to your daughter carefully, and believe what she’s telling you,” Stutzky continues. “You don’t want to say she’s being dramatic, that she’s blowing it out of proportion. No. It is as bad as she says. Her world is falling apart. Then reassure her that it is a good thing to talk about this issue.”
Parents may be appalled by what their daughters tell them, Stutzky says, but reacting indignantly or trying to come up with the right solution may just annoy your girl. Stay calm while empathizing with her. Some girls won’t tell you what’s going on because they’re afraid of what you might do.
You can’t fix your girl’s life for her and she really doesn’t want you to make it worse. So listen, empathize, and help her strategize ways to cope with the situation. If your daughter is the perpetrator–the one bullying, lying, or doing other harmful things to her peers–you need to know this too, and explore options for her.
Girlfriends should talk with each other about how they’re going to deal with anger before it starts, Stutzky suggests. Girls’ relationships are wonderful partly because of their power and intimacy, says Stutzky, but those same qualities make for intense bad feelings when the relationship sours. Girls need a plan for dealing with these strong emotions without harming themselves or others.
Raising Their Voices: The Politics of Girls’ Anger by Lyn Mikel Brown
Girlfighting: Betrayal and Rejection Among Girls by Lyn Mikel Brown
World Report on Violence and Health by the World Health Organization