A century ago the word “bully” conjured a predictable stereotype:  a male, probably young and strong, with a mean disposition.

This “tough guy” routinely preyed on and victimized the weaker members of society. He teased kids on the playground, or made fun of less-masculine boys in the locker room.

That stereotype is long gone. Unfortunately, it has been replaced by another, which is more than a little disturbing. One of today’s most abusive and destructive bullies are young girls.

Relational Bullying

An area of great concern to behavioral health professionals today is relational bullying. This is literally bullying that transpires within female friendships. It starts very young, as early as second and third grade. This form of bullying is nearly the antithesis of traditional bullying. It is covert, passive-aggressive, insidious and mean. It’s not physical; it’s verbal, or written. This bullying comes in the form of gossip, secret telling, or lies about another. On the surface, an interaction can seem so sincere and innocuous. One young girl may say to another, “Because I am your best friend, I want you to know that you look fat in those jeans;” or “Natalie and Annie hate you.” The same girl may start passing around nasty rumors, mean jokes, or even abusive song lyrics about the other, all the while displaying a “nice girl” facade.

Why do girls do this to one another? It all returns to the age-old concept that by pushing someone down, you push yourself up. Bullying rarely has anything to do with the target; it has everything to do with the needs and desires of the one doing the bullying. The one being bullied is essentially a tool to advance the bully’s agenda.

Female Vulnerability

Females are by definition relational; they connect with one another through emotional closeness, by sharing thoughts and feelings, even disclosing intimate secrets. This creates profound vulnerability. When this vulnerability is exploited in the form of relational bullying, a girl of eight or ten years old is not mature enough to recognize the truth. Instead of seeing the insecurities or attention-seeking behavior in the friend, her self-esteem and self-concept take a severe hit. She believes she is fat, ugly, stupid, or is hated by all. This is particularly troubling because these are the critical years when her self-identity is taking form.

What’s more, because this type of bullying is so covert, the one on the receiving end rarely gets help. For example, a boy gets slugged by another kid at school. He goes home bleeding – he gets sympathy and care from a parent. Conversely, a young girl knows everyone is talking about her, believing some lie about who she was hanging around with at the mall. She returns home after school. Does her pain show? No. In fact, if asked about her day, could she even explain? Probably not because everything she is experiencing is so intangible, so “feelings” based. 

What is so additionally sad is that even when girl A is bullying girl B, girl B will remain in the destructive friendship. This is because the fear of having no friends, being alone, or an outcast, is worse than anything she can imagine. For a young girl, the thought of being ostracized by the group is completely unacceptable.

Hateful behavior is only intensified through social media. The internet has allowed bullying to advance to whole new levels of toxicity. This is seen primarily in the early teen years, when girls are highly involved in such activities as facebooking.

Long-term Consequences

Consider the illustration of the boy getting slugged at school . His wounds are physical; they will eventually heal. Not so for the young girl involved in relational bullying. Her emotional pain will continue, and undoubtedly, intensify. Her feelings of inadequacy, shame, guilt, and sadness can lead to depression and anxiety. If she does not possess healthy coping skills, this can eventually result in eating disorders, self-harming behavior, or problems with drugs or alcohol. This is because emotional pain is, in the final analysis, pain. It hurts. Anorexia, bulimia, self-injury, drugs and alcohol can dull the emotions and provide an escape from the pain.

What Can Be Done

A “no-tolerance” policy regarding bullying should be in place at every school. However, this will do little to address or reduce relational bullying due to its passive-aggressive nature. Fortunately, parents, especially mothers, can take meaningful steps to impact their daughters. These include:  

  • Encourage social diversity. It is healthy for girls to have more than one peer group with whom to interact. In addition to the friends at school, she may become involved with extra curricular activities in the area of sports, clubs or the faith community. This means her identity; her self-concept won’t be defined or shaped by only one group.
  • Encourage Insight. If a child is being bullied, talk about the “whys” of such behavior. Try to help her clarify what might be behind a “friend” behaving in such a fashion. Help her to see it is not about her, what she has done or who she is.
  • Be an Excellent Role Model. The most critical role model to any child is the same-sex parent. If a mother wants her daughter to be strong, genuine, assertive, and non-passive-aggressive in relationships, she can strive to model that behavior in her own life. Living the example is the best step any mother can take to positively influence her child.
  • Communicate and Show Support. Let your daughter know that she never has to go through anything alone; you are always there to listen and support. Make sure she knows that all things are “speakable,” meaning no topic is off limits. Encourage her to put her thoughts and feelings out into the light of day, knowing that it they remain in the dark they will only grow, distort and fester. When pain remains inside, it can lead to hopelessness, despair and self-harm. 

Although the face of bullying may have changed in recent decades, it is more prevalent and pervasive than ever; in fact, it is thought that the vast majority of children are bullied, whether relationally or physically. We encourage all adults to adopt the policy of if you see something, say something. By doing nothing, you actually lend support to the bully. By reducing the incidence of bullying throughout our culture, perhaps we in the behavioral health field will experience a reduction in the number of women who come to us for treatment with wounds dating back to early childhood bullying.

Nora Dzierwa LCSW, Family Therapist

At Timberline Knolls, Nora provides individual and group family counseling. She is a key member of a resident’s multi-disciplinary team in the treatment of an eating disorder, trauma, drug and alcohol addiction, and mood disorders. She works with families to foster communication, identify strengths and challenges, and teaches the family how to support recovery for the resident and their family.

Katie Ditch LMFT, Family Therapist

As a family therapist, Katie helps families gain better insight as to how they can really support one another in meaningful ways. Additionally, she serves as a conduit to the treatment team by informing the family of treatment decisions, answering their questions and keeping the family connected in a supportive way during treatment for an eating disorder,drug and alcohol addiction, or trauma.

Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center


Dr. Kathy Seifert