Kelly Valen, author of The Twisted Sisterhood: Unraveling the Dark Side of Female Friendships, helps debunk the myth that “girl-on-girl-crime” is a “normal rite of passage” and provides tips for aunties on how to help those who have fallen victim.
A few months ago, my cell phone rang and on the caller-ID my niece’s picture popped up, smiling like a Cheshire cat, dressed in her Philadelphia Eagles jersey. Normally I wouldn’t be alarmed to see her charming face, except it was after midnight on a Friday night and that could only mean one thing—trouble.
“Hey Honey, are you ok?” Aside from her tears, the only thing I could understand between sniffles and sobs was, “Aunt Steph, can I come over?”
“Of course,” I said. After making sure she was ok to drive, I hung up, fluffed up the sofa in our sitting room where she likes to sleep and laid out her favorite blanket. Since the start of the fall semester, she repeatedly ran up against what I call “girl on girl” crime and her sobs that evening, I suspected were triggered by another run in.
On my way down the stairs to unlock the door for her, I reached my tipping point. After listening to more than anyone’s fair share of tearful stories from several of my nieces about being bullied by their female “friends,” sitting on the sidelines of “girl-on-girl-crime”— a pervasive and destructive relational phenomenon— was no longer an option. Ready to suit up, my only struggle that night was how I could brandish any real level of influence.
While I waited for my niece to arrive, I felt so powerless. Sure I could listen and offer support but in regard to the broader issue—I wanted to roar. In addition to being a therapist, I am a writer, and in my moment of fury it hit me—my best opportunity to raise awareness about female bullying was to write about it. So here I am, reaching out to you, the Savvy Auntie auntourage to ask you to join forces with me against this bad behavior in a piece I am dedicating to my nieces who inspired it.
For help debunking the myth that female bullying is a “normal rite of passage” and tips on how aunties can help those who have fallen victim, I knew immediately who my go-to source would be — the brave and tenacious Kelly Valen, author of the book, The Twisted Sisterhood: Unraveling the Dark Legacy of Female Friendships.
Devoid of any hint of self-righteousness, Kelly’s book is not limited to personal anecdotes but rather bursts at the seams with mounds of research in her call to action for women to “behave.”
My “auntuition” was right. The reason for my niece’s tears that night was a run in with the same girls who had been majoring in nasty behavior all semester. After she settled down, we talked into the wee hours of the morning about what happened and when there was a break in the action, I emailed Kelly and asked her if she’d be willing to share some of her insights on female bullying with the Savvy Auntie community. To my delight, she responded with a resounding, “I’d love to!”
Kelly was as warm as the tropical weather where she lives—Thailand—and our conversation was fueled by the passion that burns in our bellies to take a stand on this issue. She recounted briefly her own story of dealing with “mean girls,” originally featured in the New York Times popular Modern Love column. An absolute delight, Kelly’s command of the subject and drive to raise awareness about female bullying made me want to stand up and salute her.
On behalf of the Savvy Auntie community, thank you, Kelly for the opportunity to learn how we can make a difference.
—Stephanie Baffone, LPCMH, NCC, Advice Columnist, Therapist & Savvy Auntie Expert
Q: I often hear people say “girl-on-girl” crime is a normal rite of passage but on the first page of your book you have a quote from a woman who says, “While men can hurt my body, women can scour my soul.” Just how destructive is female bullying?
A: It can be pretty darn destructive and to speak to just how destructive it can be, the story of my friend’s niece immediately comes to mind. Her story is a little grim but it was one of the final light bulb moments for me and motivators for writing the book, in addition to my daughters. She hung herself over what some consider, “normal” female banter. I carry her picture with me all the time and I had it with me on my book tour. Every time I look at it, it is such a good reminder to keep plugging along in the face of all of the people out there who are cynical and say, “Get over it!” The thing about kids to remember, and I think this a great point for aunts—is kids are impulsive and in my friend’s niece’s case, she was a strong girl, with strong family ties and strong ties with her teachers. She actually was talking about her struggles. The school knew. Her parents knew. She was getting support but kids are really impulsive and when they’re hurting and this “stuff” feels like it’s the weight of the world and they start thinking, “This must be who I am—I’m a loser, ” the hurt goes deep. What we think is garden variety, innocuous female banter from our adult perspective, isn’t always the case from a kid’s perspective. It’s useful to remember that.
Q: That is so true, Kelly. With teenagers you especially have to be very careful because they don’t yet fully grasp the concept of forever. And in a given instant, if suicide seems attractive, they are at a much higher risk than an adult to act on that impulse…
A: Or drugs, or alcohol or any escape from reality. And again, having a group of supportive women in your life, including aunties, is another safety net. I wanted to make another quick point that is actually pretty encouraging in regard to advocating for help for the victims. In 2009, the American Academy of Pediatrics urged its pediatricians to team up with parents and schools and advocate more actively for kids in the prevention and treatment of bullying—by asking young patients about their relationships, starting a dialogue with parents, and reinforcing the notion that bullying is not a normal rite of passage. The statement specifically highlights the effects of girl-on-girl cruelty, noting that girls often experience greater emotional distress than boys in the relational aggression contexts.
Q: It’s fAUNTastic to hear that doctors are getting in the game of prevention and treatment. Pediatricians and general practitioners are often on the front lines of this battle. They are the first to encounter the walking wounded whose psychological scars are masked by physical symptoms. We should all heed their call to action. I know after reading your book, I’ve been so much more cognizant of my own behavior. I’m reminded that I am always role-modeling for my nieces, which ties into the book’s main purpose as, “an invitation to every girl and woman to pay more attention to what’s going on within the gender, to reflect, and, ultimately, to behave.” How do you think aunties can do this?
A: Let’s start writing narratives based on inclusion not exclusion. If you notice that another person sort of sitting things out, reach out to her. She could very well be pulling back from friendships because of a past experience. Reach out to her. Also, let’s as women, try to establish a more valid social currency than catty conversations. Often times we women bond over this type of behavior and our children, nieces, observe this. That is a really powerful message about how you make connections and get ahead. I’d rather see a new social contract where it’s about including people and being kind and respectful, in a very authentic and genuine way. If you’re an aunt, father, whoever, you can certainly role model those kinds of behaviors. Also, accountability is a big deal too. When you see things going on with girls, don’t be afraid to stand up and say, “This is not acceptable behavior.” I don’t micromanage but if I see bullying going on, or if I see updates on Facebook that girls are posting that are cause for concern, I’ll reach out to that mother or daughter and gently say, “Perhaps you should be paying closer attention.” So aunties don’t be afraid to speak up sometimes!
Also, I have to tell you, I just love the Savvy Auntie concept! It’s hard to be the parent. We have to be the ones to set the limits, but to have another relationship based on unconditional love and support—and an aunt seems the ideal candidate for girls—someone who offers that sort of unconditional acceptance, someone who you can go to talk about these issues is critical to a young girl’s upbringing. Aunts shape nieces. You know the tough job has to go to mom and dad, but ultimately what aunties can do is be strong, authentic women.
Q: Amen! I love that. For a multitude of reasons, it’s so important for aunties to be strong, authentic women. Kelly, I know aunties out there are looking for words of wisdom to offer girls who have run up against this painful behavior. What can we say to help?
A: What I tell my girls, first of all is, “You are not alone.” That is always so validating. I tell people all the time that I still remember that moment of pressing “send” when I emailed my essay to the New York Times because I really wasn’t sure about sending it. I felt like a freak. I felt like I was completely alone, with my wariness and inability to really have what I felt everybody else in the world was having—really comfortable female relationships. I just never felt comfortable. I thought, “Oh my God, I’m putting myself out there. I’m a mother of four kids. I’m going to look like such a freak of nature.” And yet, I was blown away. I was truly beyond floored to get letters from women of all ages, from all backgrounds, from all over the country, writing to me saying, “This is me! You’ve been writing about me!” “This is exactly how I’ve been feeling for the last twenty years.” That is so validating.
Q: It sure is. What else would you suggest aunties do to help when “mean girls” strike so close to home?
A: Remind your nieces that nasty behavior is more about the offender. Again, I don’t have all the answers, but I tell my girls this all the time and I think it really helps—I remind them that these issues are more about the other person. It’s about what’s going on inside of them. It’s so much less about you. We all know that’s the classic definition of a bully—someone who has issues going on in their own life that’s probably feeling insecure. Also, I try to raise my girls’ level of compassion and say, “Look, there is something going on in her life that she is feeling the need to do this, that she needs to exclude you from this party and make sure you know about it. Think about that. Think about why she is stirring the pot.” It’s pure psychological projection. We talk about it a lot. I think, too, for my girls, it really helps for them to know I’ve been through this also. Yes, gosh, it’s so, so hurtful. Sometimes just validating their experiences and listening and not necessarily lecturing or giving all the answers is the most helpful thing to do. Aunties are in the perfect role to do this! My friends who went through infertility always said the best help came from people who knew how to simply be a sounding board and I think that applies here too. Having someone there just to listen and not always have all the answers is so helpful. And I think one of the best things aunties can do is share their stories. Sharing how you survived the ugliness yourself can serve as inspiration. If you’ve survived it, they can too!
Q: Yes! As a woman who’s been through infertility, I couldn’t agree more with your friends’ sentiments. It’s so funny, here I am—a therapist and I’m a professional, skilled sounding board and yet I have a tendency myself, to minimize what a difference simply listening can make. I think that’s because when one of my nieces comes home in tears the auntie in me wants to shake the culprit, point my finger in the offender’s face and say, “If she comes home one more time in tears…!” But that’s no kind of behavior to role model. It’s validating to be reminded that listening is the kind of response that truly has an impact and that we shouldn’t discount how effective it is or what a terrific behavior it is to role model. And I agree wholeheartedly that aunties can be the kind of sounding board kids need. Often times kids look to other adults for guidance when they have an issue they fear might worry their parents. We are great surrogAunts in those instances, aren’t we?
A: You sure are! I have to tell you a story that really speaks to that. My daughter had a bit of a run in with a teacher at school who was really out of line. I can be a bit of a mother bear and when I see injustice it is nearly impossible for me to just sit on the sidelines. My daughter told me what happened and I spoke up. I went to the school and I addressed it but my approach, I think, might have scared her. My worry in retrospect is maybe next time she’ll tell her sister or a friend instead because she won’t want me to get so worked up. See, that would have been the perfect time for an auntie maybe, right?
Yes, m’am! It sure sounds like it. Thank you, Kelly, for your time and for having the courage to stand up and say, “Enough!” You are a fAUNTastic role model for all of us!
Aunties, while we can’t change other people’s behavior, what Kelly says we can do in response to bad behavior comes from Ghandi: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
Kelly’s book, The Twisted Sisterhood: Unraveling the Dark Legacy of Female Friendships is available now. Buy it and show your support to one brave member of our auntourage!
Thank you, Kelly!
Published April 18, 2011