Birds of a feather bully together: Girls’ friendships and bullying

Mean Girls Poster by Pink Rocker I grew up on after-school specials about the terrifying impact of peer pressure. Kids who weren't assertive in their friendships often ended up addicted to drugs or alcohol, or worse. Maybe those TV shows were over the top, but researchers are finding that Mean Girls, at least, got it right (sort of) when it comes to popular girls and bullying.

Researchers have been investigating the impact of friends on each other's behaviour for decades, and it's clear that peer influence depends on a number of characteristics of the friends in question. One important factor is status within the group - high-status kids are more likely to have an influence on the behaviour of their friends. In a study published in the current issue of the International Journal of Behavioral Development, Ellen Peters and her colleagues examined the spread of aggression and prosocial behaviour between best friends in Grade 4.

Peters and her colleagues found that girls whose best friends were popular were more likely to engage in relational aggression. This is the kind of indirect bullying that may go unnoticed by teachers; it can include spreading rumours, gossiping, and ignoring or rejecting other kids. It looks like girls use these tactics to form alliances that help them to remain at the center of a large social network. These popular girls who encourage their friends to behave badly were seen in the movie Mean Girls, but they seem to show up in almost every primetime teen drama. I was somewhat surprised that the link between friend popularity and bullying was occurring in students as young as 9 years old! The news isn't all bad, however. Although friendships with popular girls are linked to relational aggression, the researchers also found that prosocial behaviour was more likely for girls with popular friends.

So how can parents help their daughters to deal with the possibly negative influence of their friendship with a bully? Here are a few ideas:

Talk to your daughters about what makes a good friend, and about relational aggression. Most kids don't want to be seen as a bully, but they may not recognize spreading rumours or rejecting their classmates as bullying. I've found that, even if my sons aren't sure how to deal with their friends' behaviour, they can easily pick out inappropriate behaviour when we talk about it together.

Encourage self-esteem as a building block for assertiveness. It's easier to stand up for yourself if you believe that your feelings and opinions are important. As we discussed in Episode 61 of the Family Anatomy podcast, kids learn to feel good about themselves through success - whether it occurs in extracurricular activities or academics. Facilitating involvement in activities in which your daughter shows ability or interest might eventually make it easier for her to resist peer pressure. has an excellent article with suggestions on how to raise a confident girl.

Get to know your child's friends! I don't think that this can be overestimated. Having your daughter's friends over for supper, or providing transportation to events can give you a little bit of first-hand knowledge about the peer-related issues that your child may face.

Watch movies like Mean Girls and talk about the characters' behaviour. Many teens will recognize their own characteristics or those of their classmates in movie characters. This could open up a dialog, and could potentially allow you to problem-solve collaboratively with your child.

How do you encourage your daughters to form positive friendships?

You can find Peters' study here.

Note: Posts on Family Anatomy are for education only, and are not intended to replace professional or medical advice. If you need to talk to someone about family or mental health issues, you can get a referral from your family doctor.