As an adolescent, Andrea Chaitin-Richards was on the receiving end of whisper campaigns and exclusion by the mean girls at school.
"Theater helped me. It was something that helped me keep myself together," she says.
Now a licensed clinical professional counselor who has specialized in adolescent issues at Hoover and Associates in Tinley Park, Chaitin-Richards eventually turned the tables.
"Sometimes people who were bullied turn out to be bullies later," she says. "I actually did that, too. I learned to play the game."
The term "mean girls," to describe the relational bullying phenomenon among tweens age 11 to 13, became a popular fixture in the English lexicon in 2004, due to the popularity of the movie by the same name. Based on the book "Queen Bees and Wannabes" by Rosalind Wiseman, the film version was written by and co-starred former Saturday Night Live cast member Tina Fey and was set in Chicago's North Shore.
"It probably is the worst aspect of bullying," Chaitin-Richards says. "I think it's probably our society's greatest psycho-social problem … It's really scary stuff. I have little kids, and it's one of my biggest fears for them."
Big problem today
About 17 percent of students surveyed by Dorothy Espelage, professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois-Champaign, say they had bullied another student. Fifty-eight percent reported they had witnessed bullying, but only 13 percent of those young people say they intervened.
A study published in February in American Sociological Review by researchers at the University of California-Davis concluded that the more popular a student becomes, the more likely he or she is to harass peers. The most aggressive behavior, according to the study, peaked when students hit the 98th percentile in popularity.
However, those who managed to secure a place in the top 2 percent of a school's social hierarchy stopped harassing their fellow students. The researchers theorized that these students may have had little left to gain by bullying.
Children typically move up and down the popularity spectrum over the course of their education-and sometimes even in the same year, Chastain-Richards says. Some children rise in the pecking order, then fall from grace only to rise again, she says.
Girls and boys differ
Relational bullying, a leading cause of depression and suicide among adolescents, tends to rear its ugly head more among girls than boys, Chaitin-Richards says. That's because many boys have other more extreme ways of dealing with conflict: ignoring it or tackling it head-on through physical aggression.
"Anecdotally speaking, women don't have the physical strength, so they use psychological warfare," she says, adding that girls learn to manage power and influence covertly.
One exception may be boys who are gay.
"I think that's where boys get affected by relational aggression," Chaitin-Richards says. "Not fitting the mold puts somebody at risk."
Though it may bleed into the neighborhood or home environment-especially because of the rise of email, text messaging and social networking sites among other technologies-experts agree that relational bullying is primarily a school-based problem. It can result in chronic truancy, falling grades and, at its worst, dropping out, as students become alienated from their classmates and try to avoid school.
Illinois is one of 45 states that has anti-bullying legislation, but it remains an unfunded mandate, though its programs have been proven to reduce bullying by as much as 50 percent. Even so, school districts from the inner city to Naperville have made a commitment to staff professional development in this area.
Ann Hofmeier, director of teaching and learning at Aptakisic-Tripp School District 102 in Buffalo Grove, says her district places a high value on socio-emotional education.
"We put a lot of time and stock and value into how our kids feel," she says. "I think it's just as important as being a good reader and understanding math concepts."
Last December, Hofmeier and a group of new teachers in the district's mentoring program participated in a workshop dealing specifically with the mean girls phenomenon sponsored by YouthLight Inc., publisher of several books on the subject.
"To be honest," she says, "all schools have these issues because they deal with people. I wouldn't say we have a problem, but you want to be proactive."
Rebecca R. Bibbs is a freelance writer living in Oak Park.