When girls hurt girls: Dealing with word wars

"How many of you think girls are mean?" Cheryl Dellasega asked the crowd gathered in the Downtown Theatre last Wednesday for the final Research Unplugged conversation of the Fall season. A majority of audience members raised their hands. "Well, I don't think that girls are inherently cruel," responded Dellasega.

woman with arms crossed smiles

Cheryl Dellasega

"Relationships mean different things to girls and boys," explained Dellasega, author and professor of humanities and women's studies. "For a young woman, the process of growing psychologically occurs through her connections to others—whether they are positive friendships or aggressive relationships."

"Relational aggression," a term Dellasega uses to define words and actions intended to hurt others "is often used within the friendship circle," she said. "It may take on a form unique to the setting, but there is a common underlying dynamic across the board. Whether it be rumors, rude comments, or just a roll of the eyes, it usually occurs under-the radar." And this is the challenge for parents and school administrators, Dellasega pointed out.

A survey conducted in 2001, asked young girls to list their biggest fears. "The number one fear among the group was being hurt emotionally by a friend," noted Dellasega.

The media is not helping to alleviate this fear, she added. "Society saturates young girls with books and movies and television shows about cliques and gossip and mean girls," said Dellasega. "It's perceived as glamorous to be cruel."

Dellasega also described the recent increase of online or "cyber relational aggression." She said, "Girls admit to being meaner online. Inflammatory or cruel words are easier to say over the Internet." Most of this interaction takes place outside of school, but when the girls come face to face the following day, the situation may escalate and explode. Referring to the first girl-to-girl shooting which occurred in Williamsport, PA five years ago, Dellasega pointed out that "word wars can contribute to physical fights."

"So how can we eliminate such behavior?" asked one audience member.

"It's important to intervene at an early age and teach positive relationship skills," Dellasega replied. To that end, Dellasega founded an after-school program called Club Ophelia, as well as a week-long summer camp called Camp Ophelia. "We teach conflict resolution and create a safe place for girls to express themselves. Some girls just need a second chance, a fresh start," she said. Her work earned her the 2004 Penn State Faculty Outreach Award.

Last year, Dellasega and her girls created a "No Way R.A. Day" pledge to encourage young people to devote one day to avoiding acts of relational aggression. She said, "My best hope is that the kids themselves will promote change."

Cheryl Dellasega, Ph.D., is professor of humanities and women's studies in Penn State's College of Medicine. She is author of Girl Wars and Mean Girls Grown Up. She can be reached at cdellasega@psu.edu.

Last Updated November 20, 2006