Many young girls know one--a "friend" who makes fun of them and points out faults at every opportunity but responds to complaints and hurt feelings with a laugh and "just kidding."
Maybe it's time for a friend divorce.
Rachel Simmons, author of "Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls," says girls need to realize that "being nice" doesn't mean they can't stand up for themselves. Adults can help by teaching children coping strategies to deal with bullies, even if it means ending a friendship before it becomes too damaging.
Simmons has researched bullying among girls around the country, from a prep school in Massachusetts to a small school district in northeast Mississippi. She said aggression and bullying are epidemic across all age groups and across the country.
"I think southern culture is a very loving place to be, but like anywhere else, it's got plenty of aggression," she said.
Simmons spoke at the Mississippi Kids Count conference Friday about her research and how parents and educators can address bullying.
"One of the ways we address girls bullying is by talking with them about some of their behaviors," she said. "Girls need to understand when you say, 'I won't be your friend anymore if you won't do what I want,' that's a form of aggression, and parents need to know to stop it when they see it. Teachers need to know to deal with it in the classroom. It starts with policy, it continues with consistent enforcement, and it's something parents, teachers and all of us, really, have to take a role in."
Most of all, Simmons said children need to know that there is nothing wrong with them if someone is bullying them, and that they have resources and people to talk and empathize with them.
"One of the most surprising things in my own research is the way that kids value empathy from adults," she said. "Kids know we're probably not going to solve all their problems; it's pretty hard for us to follow them into school and fix it. But what they do want from us is empathy. They want to know that we hear them, we see them, and we take seriously what they're going through."
Sue Ellen Codding, a volleyball coach from McComb who attended the conference, said she now recognizes that some of the girls on her team are bullying others through nonverbal behavior and body language. She wants to address the problem in part by making sure the bullies know that what they are doing is hurtful, rather than normal girl behavior.
"If girls are just being mean because they're girls, well, they need to be taught that it's not OK to be mean," she said.
Simmons said that adults, including teachers, sometimes bully children, and the power difference can make it even more difficult for children to deal with the bullying.
"We can't help the kids until we as adults take responsibility for our own aggression," she said.
Parents can help their children in those situations by teaching them to cope with unfair situations, such as excusing themselves to the bathroom if they can't take it anymore, or talking with the school counselor, Simmons said. Children will also remember when an adult sympathizes and works with them to deal with the bullying.
"A lot of the time we can't make it go away, but we can create experiences within the pain that they carry with them and that define them after they come through it," she said.