Bullying not always just boys

Posted: Monday, March 08, 2004

When it comes to bullying, the common scenario that comes to most people's minds involves boys hazing other boys on sports teams, harassing unpopular kids in school, making threats or starting shoving matches that escalate into fistfights.

However, just like drugs, depression, suicide and other maladies facing today's youth, bullying is not just relegated to boys.

"Girls can be really mean, and it doesn't have to be physical fighting, but as society changes, there's more of that," said Heidi Chay, a mediator and co-owner of Horizon Mediation Services.

Chay and Dr. Christine Gehrett, an assistant professor at Kenai Peninsula College, gave a presentation to about 80 sixth- and eighth-grade central Kenai Penin-sula girls attending a Young Women's Conference at Solid Rock Camp in Sterling on Satur-day about how to identify and cope with bullying and how to build good friendships throughout their lives.

According to Chay and Gehrett, bullying among girls is a major problem that often is overlooked. Adult women tend to be very dismissive of the idea of female bullying, Gehrett said.

"They say, 'That's just a stage all girls go through,'" she said. But being dismissive of the emotional pain and trauma bullying can cause is not a helpful response.

"Bringing it out in the open as bullying I think is important because it's not OK. Just because it's always been there doesn't mean it's OK."

Bullying among boys often involves physical aggression, which leaves bruises and other telltale marks to alert adults to a problem. While bullying among girls can take a physical form, it more often is subtle and carried out through less recognizable means, including verbal harassment, emotional abuse or ostracization, usually in ways adults don't notice.

"The problem with girl bullying is it's invisible," Chay said. "Teachers say 'Oh, Molly is the sweetest girl in the class, she would never do anything like that.' ... And everybody knows (Molly would) but the adults don't see it."

Bullying among girls may not be much cause for concern if the old adage of "sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me," were true. However, physical wounds can be much quicker to heal than emotional ones. What's more is studies are showing that experiences girls have with bullying can affect them throughout their lives, Chay said.

"What you experienced as kids has a profound influence on how you conduct adult relationships," she said. "... It really goes back to how we interact as girls. (I talk to women) and wonder, 'What did they experience as kids?' I think we carry those experiences forward."

Behavior that can lead to bullying starts to form in kids in their early school years, Gehrett said. At kindergarten-age and younger, kids are open to everybody, but by the end of first grade and the beginning of second, kids start to form groups and start feeling superior to other groups, she said.

If kids are taught skills like problem solving and critical thinking from an early age, it can help stop bullying problems before they start.

"So much of it has to do with issues of how to think critically, knowing you can make decisions on your own without somebody else telling you what to think," Gehrett said.

In their presentation, Chay and Gehrett asked the girls' input on what it means to be a friend, the things friends sometimes do to be mean, what those people are feeling to make them act mean, why it's difficult to talk to them about their hurtful behavior and why it's so important to do so.

"These important aspects of being a friend are true no matter how old you are," Gehrett told the audience. "So it's so important right now that you learn to be good friends and you learn to do it well, even though it's very, very hard sometimes."

The presentation also covered a model of problem solving that can be applied to friendships and other areas of the girls' lives.

"Part of what we wanted is for the girls that have experienced bullying to know you're not alone and you can survive," Chay said.

The topic is an important one to six- through eighth-graders.

"We really wanted strongly to highlight (bullying) this year because this age group suffers with the issue of bullying in the schools," said Renee Duncan, president of Soroptimist International of the Kenai Peninsula, the group that organized the conference.

Thirteen-year-old Tayler LaBarbera of Nikiski said she was having fun at the conference and will be able to apply the things she's learned to her own life, although at one point she wasn't sure she was going to attend.

"I was going to go with another friend, but we got in a fight," she said.

Nevertheless, her parents told her she should still go, so she talked another friend, Nina Hunt, into going. Hunt said she was interested to see if the she and the other girls would use what they'd learned in the conference.

The theme of Saturday's conference was "Inside Out" and focused on teaching the young women that being beautiful inside can affect their outward appearance, as well. Morning sessions, including the bullying presentation and another on developing winning personalities, dealt with developing inner beauty. Afternoon sessions, including skin care, a fashion show, color-matching demonstration and kickboxing, focused on outer appearances.

"I think the response was dynamic," Duncan said. "The girls seemed to really interact well and have a good time. They went away knowing that they can empower themselves to live in today's world."

The Young Women's Conference has been an annual event for the past nine years. The local Soroptimist group started it as a way to provide useful information and positive role models for an age range of girls who often are overlooked by other programs.

"We saw a need for some way to encourage young women to make wise choices," said Sharon Geeslin, committee chair for the conference. "We saw the results of bad choices and (wanted) to do even one little thing to help them."

The conference has grown in popularity in its nine years to being completely full this year. Some girls have attended all three years they were eligible, Duncan said. Organizers strive to find new and innovative ways to impart their information about healthy lifestyles, building self-confidence and making good choices so repeat attenders find something new each year, Geeslin said.

The community pitches in each year, too, in the form of monetary and product donations as well as being presenters. Soroptimist fund-raises throughout the year for this and its other women-and-children-related service projects. The group already is planning next year's conference, "The Sky's The Limit," which will be held the first Saturday in March.

"I think this is a tremendous opportunity for all women to affect change in the lives of these girls, and we just happen to have the opportunity to do so," Duncan said.

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