By Katie Hurly, LCSW
“When your friends cut you out…it’s the worst. It’s like you’re totally alone. So when they let you back in, you take it, even if you know they’re not that nice and are really mean to other girls.”
-A sixth grade girl
There’s a culture of silence in modern day girlhood, and this silence can be devastating for many young girls. Girls tell me that they avoid speaking up about their experiences with bullying for a variety of reasons:
- It’s humiliating
- They feel alone
- They fear they will be teased for talking about it
- They fear the bullying will get worse if they tell
- They still hope they can get back into the group
- They don’t think anyone will believe them or understand
That’s a short list. Every girl is different, and every girl has her own reasons for participating in the culture of silence. But one thing is for certain: Silence isn’t helping anyone. In fact, silence contributes to the anxiety, depression, isolation, feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, and suicidal thoughts that can occur when girls are on the receiving end of bullying and/or cyberbullying.
Speaking up helps. But speaking up doesn’t have to mean going public. Speaking up can mean talking to a small group or trusted friends, or even just one. Every little bit helps.
When girls share their stories, not for the sole purpose of getting the other girl in trouble but to help another girl or to vent her own emotions, they take steps toward healing. They also open the door to difficult conversations that just might help another girl in similar circumstances.
Breaking the silence inspires hope and healing. When I work with groups of girls, we talk about a lot of the everyday stressors of modern girlhood. Without fail, “mean girl” behavior comes up. It’s not necessarily that each girl in the room has experienced bullying, but each girl knows that it’s something to worry about. They’ve heard the stories. They know it’s out there.
But an interesting thing happens when the first girl dares to share her story. The other girls move just a little bit closer. They ask questions. They rally around her. They empathize. And then they begin to share their stories and their worries. They break the culture of silence, if only for that session, and they work together to find solutions.
4 Ways to help girls talk it out
Bring it to the surface
The best way to end the stigma and break through the culture of silence is to normalize talking about bullying and cyberbullying. Girls know it’s happening. Parents know it’s happening. Don’t wait for an incident to occur to break ground on these tough topics, make them part of your regular conversations.
I can’t tell you how many parents ask me to avoid these topics in my groups because they don’t want their girls to worry. Girls are already worrying about it. When we silence it, we contribute to the culture of silence. Bring it to the surface by engaging in regular discussions about bullying and cyberbullying at the dinner table, when you’re taking a family walk, or when you’re just hanging out doing nothing.
Share little bits
It can be overwhelming, and triggering, to share your whole story. Some girls avoid talking about their experiences because it’s just too painful. I find that when girls know that they can share “little bits” at a time and start and stop as needed, the cloud of hopelessness that overwhelms them dissipates somewhat. It can take years to heal from the psychological impact of bullying. Trying to get it all out at once is difficult at best.
One thing that I find works well with girls is to give them the “time out” option. If they become overwhelmed with emotion, they make the hand signal for time out. That’s my cue to lead a deep breathing or mindfulness exercise to help her work through the emotions.
Parenting myths lead us to believe that tween and teen girls are constantly pushing their parents away, but research shows that girls actually want help from their parents. They just don’t want every problem solved, and they don’t want to discuss everything the minute they get in the car.
Both literature and movies provide ample opportunity to discuss the many stressors girls currently face, including bullying and cyberbullying. Read together (or, at the very least, read the same book side-by-side) and initiate regular movie dates. Talk about the peer issues that arise and listen to how your daughter processes these issues. Resist the urge to come up with quick fixes. Instead, ask questions and listen as she works through the answers.
In some of my groups, I give girls little signs that say, “been there.” When one girl shares a story about something hard, the other girls can choose to raise their “been there” signs. They are then given the opportunity to share their stories or make a comment. These little connections, even if the “been there” girls don’t actually share their own stories, help girls feel less alone in the world.