Bullying: Differences between boys and girls

| Dr Ilse Ruane

Methods of bullying tend to look different between the genders. Generally speaking, bullying is more common among boys. It can be harder to spot among girls, who are more likely to engage in relational aggression rather than physical aggression.

Ruthless Boys

Boys prefer the direct method of bullying face-to-face. They use their physical power over the victim in an attempt to gain status or control. They may engage in fights, or use the threat of physical violence to torment their victims. They may also damage a victim’s property to enhance their threat.

Boys attack when the person teased shows weakness. Teasing is done to establish a hierarchy.  Boys can be ruthless.  A boy is teased about his pants being too short.  He responds with a laugh and it is over.  The ability of boys to exchange insults and tease each other with no one getting mad is a sign that boys are real friends.  However if the person teased responds by getting angry and looking upset, and the other boy will intensify the attack immediately.  The more upset he gets, the more and the harsher the teasing becomes.  The ‘teaser’ wins when the boy being teased loses his temper or loses his cool.  If it happens repeatedly, this can turn into harassment and bullying.

As already said, among boys teasing tends to establish a fairly strict and stable hierarchy; who’s the one on top, who gets listened to, who makes decisions.  Teasing includes small insults, physical bumps and pushes, and minor tassles, such as “we were just wrestling”.  Physical size, pubertal status, verbal ability, and attractiveness all determine who is on top in the status hierarchy.  (Interestingly enough, being liked is not necessarily the same as having high status).  Things establish themselves quickly with boys, in just a few days, as soon as they learn their place in the hierarchy, the teasing tends to drop down to a low, stable level.

Generally boys are more accepting of bullying than girls. Boys may even admire bullies. This is likely due to the socially constructed view that physical aggression is part of being masculine: the ‘boys will be boys’ mentality. However the line is often overstepped. When we socialize boys with the idea that they must dominate others to prove their masculinity, we indirectly breed the very tendencies that lead to bullying and dating violence. It is important both at home and in the classroom that we have conversations about masculinity as well as the appropriate levels of aggression and their proper ways to manage these.

Mean Girls

Girls may bully in the same ways boys do or in different ways. Female bullies are much more likely to engage in social or relational bullying. Most victims are incapable of rescuing themselves by virtue of the dynamics at play and the deceptive nature of this form of bullying. Sometimes, girls bully in ways that are hard to see. These can include the following:

  • Spreading rumors or gossip
  • Purposely excluding someone
  • Saying mean things or making nasty comments
  • Getting other people to be mean to someone
  • Writing nasty notes, emails, or text messages
  • Sharing someone’s secrets to embarrass or hurt them

The goal of relational bullying is to damage the girls’ reputation and isolate them from others.

Girls’ social currency lies mainly in their appearance rather than their physical strength like boys. Due to this, girl bullies attempt to tear down the appearance of their victims in any way they can. For example “Your hair is too curly”. These forms of bullying are more secretive and subtle. Girls are less likely to get caught bullying. There is less physical evidence, for parents and teachers to witness, so attacks can be longer and are more severe than male bullying. The wounds left by relational bullying as often much worst than physical bullying. For example emotional scars of being constantly told you are fat or ugly may lead to life-long self-esteem issues.

Girls tease to establish and enforce social norms.  “Your pants are too short.” “So, you decided to dress as a slut for the party?” The message being: you are not acting the way you are supposed to.  As with boys, a laugh or an acknowledgement will probably let the topic drop (if it really is teasing and not straight aggression or jealousy).  But, unlike boys, in typical female-on-female teasing, getting upset does not usually intensify teasing.  If the girl being teased looks obviously upset by the cutting remark, the typical response is “Just teasing”. What does just teasing mean?  I was joking. I did not mean to hurt you.  In other words, this is not serious and I do not really dislike you. It attempts to diffuse the situation when the teased girl stands up for themselves however it also negates the feelings of the one being teased because they took it personally when it was just a “joke”. Girls’ aggression is typically less physical and more subtle, sneaky and deceptive, than the aggression of boys.

Girls’ status hierarchies are more unstable than boys’.  Girls tend to form triarchic friendships. These change, and thus who is on top changes as well.  In addition to teasing, slights, and mean remarks, girls’ status hierarchies are established by asking favours. For example higher status girls ask favours on lower status ones such as “Can I have your new shiny pen”, and lower status girls compliment higher status ones for example “Your hair looks so good today”.  Furthermore, being that girls’ hierarchies tend to be unstable, high status girls will often clamp down on teasing of other girls within the same group.  Why?  Because if someone gets upset, the power dynamics within the group may change, the high status girl may find herself in the middle, even at the bottom, of the new order. What this results in is girls tend to experience a constant, lower level of teasing.  Unlike teasing among boys, which starts high and then drops, teasing among girls starts mid-range and more often than not just stays there in an attempt to maintain the current power dynamic within the group.

In closing, this is by no means an exhaustive discussion on bullying between the genders, rather it aims to provide some insight into the extensive nature of the topic and create an awareness of the guises of bullying. Underneath are a few further points to consider:

  • Bullies do not always look like bullies. The ‘softer’, ‘weaker’ child may very well be the bully behind closed doors, while the ‘stronger’, more ‘assertive’ child is the victim due to the power dynamics at play.
  • Your role as a parent is to pay particular attention to what is happening in your child’s social interactions at school. For example watch the sport meets and attend the poetry recital to be able to observe your child’s interactions with their peers. Keep the lines of communication open between yourself and other parents. Not as an avenue to gossip but as a means of being on top of the occurrences in your child’s social environment.
  • There are examples of teen girls and boys, withdrawing, moving schools or even taking their own lives because of bullying. Therefore be aware of how girls and boys talk to one another and do not be afraid to intervene. However be sure to get a full picture of the situation and not only rely on what your child has said. Remember there are always three sides to a story – your child’s version, the other parties version and somewhere inbetween the real situation.
  • Be available to listen when your child is having relationship problems with her girlfriends. Do not dismiss it as “girl drama”.
  • For the boys, do not dismiss ruthless behaviour under the pretext of masculinity. “Boys are rough” and “boys will be boys” statements are not useful when other children are being hurt.
  • The consequences of relational bullying can be destructive both now and later in life as the targeted child develops anxiety and social withdrawal as a result of bullying.

It is also important to remember that these are trends. The trend at a particular school might be that relational bullying is overlooked while physical bullying is focused on. Most schools have anti-bullying policies but social or relational bullying is so tricky spot. As parents and teachers, we need to be on the lookout for all kinds of bullying regardless of the gender of the bully. No anti-bullying strategy is complete without targeting bullying in all of its forms.