The ugly side of female friendships

31 August 2011

“You expect it to come from girls on the opposite side of the peer group perhaps, or at the hard edge but you don’t think your friends will bully you,” says Dr Ro Lange.

Ro, who is a school counsellor at an Auckland High School, has completed a doctoral thesis with the Faculty of Education, which has uncovered some startling facts about “friendship bullying.”

She has discovered teenage girls are just as likely to be bullied by their friends as they are by their so-called enemies. Part of the reason why the bullying happens, Ro believes, is due to developmental changes.

According to Ro’s research bullying is common amongst friendship groups. Forty-four per cent of girls surveyed believed they had been bullied by friends. More than 85 per cent said they had experienced at least one type of bullying such as being ignored or excluded.

Ro’s research findings are based on a study of Year 10 females aged about 14. The study had three parts: small focus groups, an anonymous survey of 1300 students from six Auckland state high schools, and in-depth interviews with girls who had experienced bullying or who had witnessed bullying.

“I was trying to get a picture of the bullying that happens among girls but looking at it from the point of view of friendships, not bullying from their enemies,” she says.

Bullying occurred in the majority of friendship groups but girls often failed to recognise or name it as bullying because the behaviour came from their friends, says Ro.

One of those surveyed said: “She is my friend. I told her I don’t like it but she told me ‘she was only joking’ so the fact that I am feeling hurt, there must be something wrong with me?

“The other thing is what happens if you say to your friends ‘I feel bullied by you.’ What do you do then? Do you go off? Do you find yourself without friends? I had one girl whose friends had not spoken to her, except to call her names, for six weeks. They just pushed her out.

“They (girls) don’t in fact bully as much as boys according to some experts but if they do choose to bully, it’s a kind of bullying that uses the relationship as a weapon and exercises emotional pressure."

Ro’s research identified two distinct types of friendship bullying: group bullying and triadic group bullying. Group bullying is when “the group” decides to ostracise one of their members. “She has done something to perhaps offend the group or for whatever reason one day she is in, one day she is out.”

Triadic group bullying is a “three’s a crowd scenario”. Ro explains this is where there are best friends in a pair and a third person befriends the duo. “There is this awful tug of war, and that could go on for months sometimes. It just devastates the people involved.”

Her study found that even if you weren’t the one being bullied it did have an impact on others in the friendship group.
“The majority of observers and helpers were found to experience negative effects from witnessing bullying, while victims experienced significant loss and grief concerns,” she says.

“The observers felt internal conflict because they could tell someone in their group was being bullied or someone was being deliberately excluded and it would be someone who was a friend of theirs, possibly not a close friend, but a friend all the same. What do you do then? Do you speak out and get bullied yourself? Do you feel sad for your friend? Do you provide covert support? It leads to considerable internal conflict, a sense of guilt and sometimes shame,” says Ro.

Ro says girls’ friendship problems are one of the main issues school counsellors deal with and as a result are often trivialised. Girls, “friendship issues” have become something of a “cliché,” as “there is a sort of acceptance this was just how girls behaved,” she says.

Ro says her findings suggest that the developmental changes in girls, which create increased friendship conflict, may also contribute to increased levels of bullying as girls learn to manage more highly-developed friendships: “It also indicates that satisfactory resolution of bullying is important for girls’ developmental well-being.”

When students were asked in the survey why they thought the bullying happened they tended to put it onto the bully: “The bully is angry with the other person, or it was stuff to do with friends or boys,” she says.

But when interviewed one-on-one the students were more self-reflective. They said the bullying happened because “we change”, which, Ro says, fits with the fact that the developmental changes going on are enormous.
“There are psycho-social changes and the teens are learning to define themselves. In those early teen years it is almost as though your identity is the peer group. You just want to be like everyone else and then there is a gradual separating out, not a rejection of the peer group but a sense that you are an individual. It becomes more about my friend as a person and their personal qualities, not just someone to do stuff with,” she says.

“One girl said ‘when we were children our friends were people to do things with, we played games, we’d have a fight and come back to school the next day and all would be forgotten but now it is about how can she do something like that?’”

“So it is a completely different kind of relating to other individuals that they are learning and they have to practise somewhere and they are going to get it wrong sometimes . . . this is a new and complex relationship that teenagers are working on learning to manage and there are power imbalances that happen.”

Ro says power imbalances amongst teenage girls can happen really quickly. “The person who is quick with a smart answer is going to score points very fast and the quiet introspective person may get caught on the back foot.”
Her study also sought to discover what girls themselves had found helpful in reducing or preventing friendship bullying. There was “no magic wand solution” but talking to their mother or to a friend outside the situation or getting involved with sport or another activity helped.

“Mothers had been through it and were able to stand back and give not so much advice but a bit of a distant perspective.”

Other things the students said helped were personally expressive things such as putting music on, dancing or going to a movie with other friends or playing sport “flat out.” Things that gave them a strong sense of themselves, she says.

Friends outside the situation often provided good support: “They said ‘they would listen to me. They wouldn’t try to take over but they would make me feel more confident about myself.’ It’s important to have other friends you can go to for affirmations so you are not dependent on a very small peer group.”

Ro says friendship bullying amongst friends was complex. Schools should not assume that their students recognise the indirect forms of bullying because it could masquerade as mocking or teasing, which are sometimes accepted as part of a school’s culture when they were in fact extremely hurtful.

“It was important that teachers and counsellors are aware, not just amongst girls but with boys too, that where there is a power imbalance, where someone is feeling powerless or being mocked or teased, it can be a form of bullying,” she says.

Ro has presented her findings to postgraduate students from the Faculty of Education and to fellow counsellors and teachers at several schools and has more talks in the pipeline.

Her doctoral research was supervised by Associate Professor Robyn Dixon from the University’s School of Nursing and Senior Lecturer Margaret Agee from the Faculty of Education’s School of Counselling, Human Services and Social Work.

Dr Agee says Ro’s research is important because it reveals the complexities of girls’ friendship dynamics and the bullying that occurs within that context.

“It raises awareness of a form of bullying that is often trivialised, yet can have significant effects on the girls involved, including those who witness it,” says Dr Agee.

Ro’s research provides valuable understandings that can inform the work of counsellors, teachers and others who work with girls in our high schools.

“Her research highlights the importance of taking girls’ friendship bullying seriously, recognising the complex roles of all parties in these situations, supporting girls in dealing with the damaging effects of such bullying, and helping them develop constructive ways of dealing with the dynamics in their friendship groups,” says Dr Agee.