In this article we look at the way genders will form social groups and will sometimes resort to bullying behaviour in order to defend their place in this structure. It is important as parents and caregivers that we can recognise these more subtle forms of bullying such as excessive “bantering” or “special friending”, as these behaviours may go unchecked and unrecognised for long enough that the victim internalises shame as a result of them. This may in the long term, effect their confidence and self-esteem all the way into adulthood.

What is bullying

Bullying is the intentional physical, emotional or psychological harm of another person. This may take the form of insults, jibes, physical/sexual assault or name-calling. Recent years have also seen a rise in cyberbullying through mediums such as revenge “porn”, abusive or threatening messages, websites or imagery circulated designed to cause psychological or reputational harm and repetitive behaviours such as spamming intended to cause the victim inconvenience or distress.

Gender differences in bullying

Research shows that there are distinct differences in the ways males and females bully each other. Very early on in the social development of females, they are encouraged to socialise in groups of two- favouring “special” or best friends for interactions, whereas boys tend not to prioritise these individual friendships but look for group approval. Girls are socialised to be kind and are encouraged to be a “good friend”, unlike boys who are told that to be strong and “active competitors” will reward you with the group acceptance that they desire. These early differences in social development result in differences between how boys and girl’s bully.

Girls who have been socialised to appear kind and non-aggressive in order to gain social approval may resort to social exclusion tactics, psychological torment or humiliation, rather than physical aggression. This torment may even be masked as disgust or even “concern” for the victim, in order for the bully to maintain a “nice girl” image. Social exclusion of other girls also allows for bullies to guard or protect friendships they consider as exclusive or special. This may take the form of “divide and conquer” tactics, where one girl chooses to “special friend” one girl for one week and reject the next, this results in all the girls in the group flocking for this individual’s attention lest she should be rejected as that week’s victim has been. This can appear to an outsider as simply an attempt by one girl to form close friendships with many and gain popularity but in actual fact, it is a form of social dominance, where she asserts herself as the alpha female. This form of bullying is much more subterfugal and harder to interpret than outright name-calling or humiliation.

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Boys on the other hand attempt to maintain or gain social credibility through the physical domination of another, so they might resort to tactics such as physical harm or threats. This can be detected by others fairly obviously, but like the “special friending” tactic of girls, boys may also use more subtle forms of dominance such as humiliating behaviour disguised as “jokes” or “banter”. These may be done to appear harmless and with the intention of getting a laugh from the group. But it is essentially the destruction of another’s social standing within the hierarchy, in order to elevate or protect ones own.

All of these forms of bullying can be as harmful or damaging as each other, but it is important to note the differences and to understand the aim of each- social acceptance of a group, through the expulsion or domination of another.

Sugar and spice and all things nice: what causes girls to bully?

If we return to the research on the differences in the ways the genders are socialised we can see that the desire of the “mean girl” is to achieve an elevated status through the destruction of another. Females are often told that physical beauty and popularity is the ultimate prize and therefore they may seek to destroy those who threaten their ideals in this respect. This is sometimes termed- jealousy.

It is important to note the difference between envy and jealousy, where psychoanalytic theory tells us that envy is the wish to “become another”- this is where we may see copycatting, or obsessional behaviour;  jealousy is the wish to destroy another. Here is where we may find the roots of bullying- the impulse to tear down another’s social standing through critiquing their dress sense, their physical appearance, their social behaviour or their personality. Both envy and jealousy can come from low self-esteem, but jealousy can be far more destructive to the object. A jealous girl may indeed resort to bullying.

A girl who is masking other feelings of inadequacy or the fear of social rejection may also bully, she may not feel directly jealous of another- or be cognisant of feeling so, but she may fear that if she does not bully another and asserts dominance (thus achieving social status) she will be marked as being socially inferior and she will “be exposed”.

Boys will be boys: what causes boys to bully?

Returning to the idea that boys fear garnering the negative attention of the “pack”, we can imagine how it can happen that they attempt to mark another as the “weak one”. We see in the animal kingdom that some species will literally fight the weakest male either to the death or will exile him from the pack. Boys are trained from a young age to be acutely aware of the danger of standing out from the pack and pack hierarchy, the alpha male in a pack holds power and dominance and can be cruel or benevolent in his leadership. Boys therefore will fight to become the alpha or as close to the alpha (in order not to exact punishment) as possible. This means they may attempt to harm or exile the weakest members of the pack, as pack species do in the animal kingdom.

There is a more subtle form of male bullying that is masked, similarly to mean girl behaviour, as “friendly” or “joking”- known as bantering. Watching adolescent boys bond with each other and particularly when they are establishing social hierarchy- you will often see jokes or humour taking a turn that becomes belittling or humiliating to another- this is often brushed over as “bantering”. This form of bullying is hard for the victim to stand up to, as boys are encouraged to be thick-skinned, to not show shame or upset, and to “always take a joke”- if they do not, they risk rejection from the group and possibly more outright forms of bullying such as physical harm or complete rejection. A boy who fears their place in the social structure is under threat- may choose to bully others, and similarly to girls who fear being “exposed” for being inadequate or weak in some way, may also bully others, for fear of being challenged themselves.

How to recognise what’s going on

We all know that talking to our children is important and many parents will understand the need to be aware of their child’s social media activity. But these more subtle forms of bullying such as girls “singling out” others for one week for special attention and rejecting them the next, or spreading malicious gossip may be harder to detect. Similarly, with banter between boys: when one boy is the constant object of the banter, it may be time to look more closely at how healthy these social structures are.

How can we teach children to deal with this?

We can talk with our children about identifying behaviours in others that make them feel shame. If they do feel this in response to another’s behaviour, we can teach them that friends or not, they have every right to voice this and to express the wish for behaviour that doesn’t cause them shame. We can inform our children that good friends do not attempt to shame another. But getting children to focus exclusively on the emotion of shame, we can help them identify toxic behaviours. Many behaviours may cause us anger or distress, and these may not necessarily be bullying, but shame is not an emotion that should ever be extracted by another. It is important to note the difference here between guilt and shame: guilt is where you can apologise for something you have done wrong; shame is the belief that YOU are wrong. If someone is attempting to shame you, they are not being a kind friend.

Article by Dr Alison McClymont, Child Psychologist.

Alison has over 10 years experience at the forefront of children’s mental health. Keep up to date with her on Instagram: @alisonmcclymontinsta 

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