Girls at Camp: Overcoming Relational Aggression

by Bob Ditter

Author's note: The names and certain identifying characteristics of the campers on which this article is based have been changed to protect their privacy. The resulting thoughts, conclusions, and practical suggestions are just the beginning of finding a deeper and more effective understanding of the problem of girls hurting other girls.

July 2009

"The counselors don't really know what's going on," Lori said in all seriousness. "I mean, they're nice and they want to help us, but they don't really know how."

Lori is one of twelve campers in a cabin of eleven- and twelve-year-old girls whose counselors have told me that there is a "bullying problem" in the group they can't quite figure out. They had hoped I might offer some practical suggestions about how to help the girls get along better with one another and reduce the "bullying."

"What is it that you think the counselors don't seem to get?" I ask. Lori is typical of most campers these days — articulate, eager to talk if she thinks someone truly wants to understand, and full of ideas about what "the problem" might be.

"They think we're just being mean," Lori says. "What they don't understand is if we don't talk out our problems, they just get worse until everyone's feelings get hurt." Lori, like many of the girls I talk with at camp, is caught in the complicated web of hurt feelings, conflicting loyalties, and strong personalities that baffles most adults.

The Social Life of Girls at Camp

The following are a few observations about the social life of campers that I have made in twenty-seven years of visiting camps:

  1. Campers will not have great experiences at camp if they don't fit in or feel comfortable in their cabin or group. Exciting activities, quality staff, special events, meaningful rituals, and camp spirit are great features of camp, but they can never make up for the importance of fitting in. Most youths are painfully aware when they don't fit in or when there is discord in their cabin or group.
  2. Camp professionals and camper parents cannot expect children to come together at camp and not have conflicts. It's not like children come to camp, and the magic simply happens. Children today come from smaller families where they have been raised with a lot of parental intervention. When they come to camp they acquire five to fourteen "brothers" or "sisters" all at once. Suddenly they have to share personal space, a bathroom, their time, friends, stories, and their counselors' attention in a way they usually don't have to at home. Most have had little practice sharing, compromising, and working out conflicts outside of camp!
  3. "Bullying" is a lazy term. It tells us nothing about specific behavior — what a child is actually doing or saying — that is so hurtful. It is a kind of "one-size-fits-all" label that offers no insight about the meaning or cause of the behavior. The term "relational aggression," referring to the fact that girls express their hostilities through relationships, isn't much more helpful.
  4. A lot has been done to describe the hurtful behavior some girls engage in with other girls, but not a lot has been offered as to practical, effective ways to address that behavior.
  5. People who work with girls have a lot of assumptions about why girls do hurtful things to other girls, but my experience is that most of us rarely take the time or make the effort to find out the true causes. Don't get me wrong — some girls can be extremely mean. Understanding what's behind mean behavior is essential before deciding what to do to change it.
  6. Children today are extremely verbal and may even be better at articulating their issues than their female counselors, many of whom have not sorted out their own issues of loyalty, popularity, favoritism, or healthy ways to express anger.
  7. Any conflicts girls may have will always intensify in the absence of strong positive adult leadership. When counselors are truly connected, interested, and aware — when they are truly "present" in the camp lives of the girls — hurtful behavior is better held in check.

Two Profiles for Relational Aggression

Two years ago I worked with two girls at a camp in Pennsylvania. "Carla" lived in Florida; "Nancy" lived in New Jersey. The only opportunity they had to spend much time together was at camp, where they had known each other for four years. As a result, the girls wanted to be together as much as possible. This did not go over well with the other girls in the cabin who felt excluded and left out. The counselors pointed out to Carla and Nancy how sometimes, without meaning to, they were hurting the feelings of the other girls by being so exclusive. So each girl made an attempt to "branch out," trying to spend time with other girls.

Soon Nancy began to fear that Carla would like some of the other girls more than her. Being insecure in her relationship with Carla, whom she saw as more mature and socially savvy, she continued to try to get Carla to be with her while Carla was trying to take the advice of her counselors and spend time with other girls. Whenever Nancy felt rebuffed by Carla, she would approach other girls and whisper mean things to them about Carla. This is typical of girls who, when they don't know where they stand with other girls, often go on the offensive, keeping secrets, spreading rumors, passing notes, and making faces. What to counselors looked like mean behavior on Nancy's part was actually an attempt to steer the other girls away from Carla. Carla then retaliated, saying mean things back to Nancy or saying mean things about her to the other girls. Had Nancy had the emotional and verbal wherewithal to express her worries to Carla — which is exactly what I helped her do when I finally caught up with her — she wouldn't have had to resort to her campaign of hurt.

Insecure Type
Nancy typifies the girl who resorts to aggressive tactics when she is insecure about her place with one or more girls or when she lacks the skill and emotional maturity to express her insecurity. Most girls who are insecure are reluctant to admit it for fear of losing their status in the group. These "insecure type" girls resort instead on heavy-handed methods much as Nancy did with Carla. The key here is for a strong, charismatic adult in the camp community — usually but not always a female — to cultivate a trusting relationship with the girl and help strengthen her connections to the other girls in more positive ways. Getting her to admit her insecurity requires skill but can happen if there is enough trust with a caring adult.

Willful Type
Another type of socially aggressive girl is the girl who commands a lot of attention in the group and simply enjoys exercising her power, sometimes in capriciously mean or willful ways. Girls like this often come from families with a highly competitive parent or older sibling who is also socially aggressive. There are two distinguishing features of the "willful type" of socially aggressive girl. First, they often challenge the authority of the counselor and can get the other girls to do so, too. Second, they often have a couple of "lieutenants" or intensely loyal sidekicks who help them keep a tight grip on the other girls. While willfully aggressive girls can also benefit from a relationship with a strong adult female in camp who can model strength without meanness, they often require a different kind of intervention. With willfully aggressive girls, all talk and no action is utterly ineffective. What I say to these girls is, "Your personal feelings about people and the friends you make are your business. But when you start making other people in the cabin uncomfortable or hurt their feelings, then it becomes my business. And if you do things to hurt people's feelings — like rolling your eyes, saying mean things, or excluding others — then I may have to have you spend a day with another group until you can learn to be with people in your group without hurting their feelings. And while I don't want to do that, it's really up to you. You will let me know by what you do from here on in."

Challenges
The first challenge here is that girls can be clever, subtle, and secretive. If counselors are not observant, they will miss the dirty look that shows up in the millisecond they are looking the other away or the whisper in the corner of the bathroom when they are on the porch or the note that mysteriously shows up under another girl's pillow when they are still asleep. Getting to the bottom of the problem can be difficult if the dominant girl has so terrified the others that they won't speak up.

The second challenge is setting up the "vacation from the group." You must send the dominant girl either to a younger or older group. Either one is suitable as long as she is treated with respect but not received as a heroine, which would be totally counterproductive in that it would reward her rather then serve as a consequence to her hurtful behavior. You must also send one of her "lieutenants" to a different group, thus splitting up their grip on the original group. Most dominant girls hate being away from their power base, and with one of her sidekicks also disabled, she will not simply be able to slip back into the group after a day and extract revenge on anyone her lieutenants inform on.

While the dominant girl and her friend are away, it is a great opportunity to do some team-building exercises with the girls who remain to strengthen their bonds and help them speak up for themselves. If once the dominant girls return they continue to intimidate other girls, the consequence needs to be repeated. In one case at an allgirls resident camp last summer, we sent a willfully aggressive girl home for three days. Unfortunately, her mother "felt sorry" for her and treated her to three days of shopping, clearly rewarding her for her aggressive behavior. After returning to camp the girl went back to her old ways and had to be sent home for the rest of the season. I am convinced that while the camp lost that one camper family forever, they were able to win over the trust of the other girls whose summers would have been ruined had the camp not acted decisively.

The third challenge has to do with how we as adults respond. Even when girls are willfully mean to others, we need to take care not to vilify them in our response. Just like any child who is testing the limits, it is the adults who need to set clear, firm, meaningful, and effective consequences in a nonjudgmental way. If we as adults don't provide those consequences, then it is partly our failure that allows their hurtful behavior to persist.

On the Case: Cabin/Group Check-In

When I am asked to look at a cabin or group that is struggling to get along, I start with what I call a "cabin check-in." It offers a view of camp as seen through the eyes of the campers. I do a check-in with the division leader, unit director, or head counselor, not with counselors.

When I meet with the campers, I begin by introducing myself. "Hi! My name's Bob and I am a friend of," and I name the camp directors. "I come to camp before the campers get here to train the staff and help them understand kids better and be the best counselors they can possibly be. Then I come back to see how things are going. I do that by sitting down to talk with several different cabins (or groups at day camp) and see what's up."

I then ask each camper to tell me her name, where she is from, and how long she's been coming to the camp. Sometimes if the camper is new I ask how she found out about this camp. When the whole group is more comfortable I ask them to tell me two or three things they like most about camp. "It can be anything," I say. Some kids say it's their friends, some mention an activity, and others talk about a favorite counselor. It only takes about thirty seconds for each child to tell me her favorite things, and by listening intently and making good eye contact, each camper begins to trust me more and more.

Then I say I am going to ask them a question on which I want them to "vote." I first explain the way they will "vote." To begin, each camper is asked to hold up one closed fist and look at me. Once I ask the question, the campers are to hold up either no fingers (" . . . that's keeping your fist closed and counts as a zero," I explain) or up to five fingers " . . . five being the best." I tell them I want everyone to look at me while they are voting because sometimes people look around to see how their friends are voting and then change their vote to be more like their friend's. I then ask them to rate, "from zero to five" — and I demonstrate with my own hand — "how well you think everyone is getting along in the cabin. One, two, three vote!"

You've got to be quick when you do this, because they can't help but look around to see how their friends are voting and modify their response to "fit in." Once I get a lot of two's and three's, I open it up. Ground rules come in handy, here. "One person speaks at a time. Everyone else listens with respect. Speak for yourself. We keep it private to this group."

When I am doing a regular cabin check-in, I continue with other questions that are not relevant to this discussion. When gaining entre into a group that is struggling to get along is needed, I use the cabin check-in as a way of starting a conversation about what is creating conflict. Armed ahead of time with notes from the counselors, I already have an idea about which girls are fighting with which girls. I tell the girls — and this is significant — that meeting with them as an entire group will not be effective because there are different issues with different girls that need to be sorted out individually.

Mapping a Cabin or Group

I then meet with different groups of girls and begin making a "map" or diagram of the relationships in their group. Creating this diagram or "map" offers a clear-eyed, nonemotional way of viewing conflicts in the cabin. I tell the girls that we will meet after it's all said and done to see whether they think I have gotten it right. Figure 1 shows an actual "map" from a cabin I worked with in 2009. Kelly and Bethany M. are from the same hometown and are very close in school, and they are close at camp as well. Emma C. hangs out with them, which is why they are all in the same box; but she isn't as close to them as they are to each other, which is indicated by the broken lines and her name somewhat further away.

Bethany T. and Nicole are twins, also from the same town as Kelly and Bethany M. Nicole loves camp and is friends with everyone, but her twin Bethany T. doesn't seem to fit in. She is ambivalent about moving in on her sister's friends, even though her sister welcomes her, and she doesn't really get along with the two girls from her home town, so she is unconnected. This turns out to be one of the destabilizing factors in the cabin, since the more Bethany T. feels unattached, the more she is negative and complains, which upsets the other girls.

Carly W. and Emma B. are both immature in different ways. Carly is developmentally behind the other girls. She is shorter, has not had her first period and looks much younger. She also has many fears, talks incessantly about her stuffed bear, and sings to herself — all traits which annoy the other girls. Emma B. is quiet and socially awkward, and she and Carly have a kind of love-hate relationship with one another. Emma feels stuck with Carly, who clings to her because the other girls leave her out. They fight constantly, and these fights also have a negative destabilizing influence on the group.

Counselors see Eliza as very strong and often hurtful in that she excludes girls from time to time and can make faces or spread rumors. It turns out that Eliza used to live in the area the other girls come from but has moved away. She is somewhat insecure, though she doesn't seem it to the other girls. Nicole, Lori, Sophie, Maggie, Eliza, and Alyssa all hang out together, even though there are often rifts among them.

Once comfortable with me, Eliza was able to agree that when she is feeling uncertain about where she stands with the other girls, she sometimes, without meaning to, does things to try to keep them from connecting more strongly with others than with her. When she is feeling this way she might tell secrets or pull certain girls close while leaving others out — all as an attempt to control her standing with the group. Once she was able to admit this, she could tell some of her friends, who were then encouraged to "help her" with it. This development had a very positive impact on the group.

A Guide to Intervention
A cabin or group map serves as a guide to staff for making sensible interventions with the girls. As I continue to work on refinements, I realize that some group or cabin situations are complex enough that they probably require the intervention of upper-level staff whose skill and maturity level is needed in order to bring about a more favorable outcome. For example with this group, Carly and Emma B. need a vacation from one another from time to time, both for their sake and the sake of the overall mood in the cabin. Bethany T. needs help making friends of her own, possibly with girls from another cabin. Eliza needs help talking to her friends when she feels insecure, rather than resorting to hurtful tactics. These are the sorts of things that take a head counselor, unit director, or division leader to arrange.

When I showed the "map" to the girls, they were astounded. They couldn't figure out how a guy could "get them" so accurately. This type of relational mapping offers the girls the opportunity to acknowledge their group conflicts because they can understand them in simple terms — and as a result, they can make efforts to work on improvement. It takes time, however. Girls, especially at eleven and twelve years old, need a lot of help sorting out their relationships. If camps are truly serious about helping girls grow; however, they will invest the time, money, and effort in helping their staff develop greater expertise in this area.

Originally published in the 2009 November/December issue of Camping Magazine.

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