When A Group of Great Girls Goes Bad: Basic Drama or Cultural Breakdown?

Girls rock.  Put a bunch together and it can be a great deal of fun, laughs and heart to heart conversations. Except when it isn’t.

Sometimes groups of girls have problems getting along.  They fight, gossip and hurt each other’s feelings.  At times it feels like a uphill battle while at the same time a downhill freight train with no intention of stopping.

I’ve been working personally with specific staff members and girls this year from a variety of schools and camps.  And even though I’ve been doing group coaching for a long time, I always find it an eye-opening study of girls culture, friendship and positive mentorship. Most recently, the leaders of an organization had asked me about one group of girls, in particular, who seemed to be in an endless fight. This daily argument not only was causing internal havoc in the group but was also exhausting the staff and leaving them with questions, concerns and a whole lot of frustration.

After a meeting with the girls personally, I realized that the problem was not, in fact, day to day fighting.  Rather, it was a much larger cultural problem that had festered like a toxic wound at the heart of the group.

Does this sound familiar to you?  It can be exhausting to deal with the day to day issues that emerge in such a group because there never seems to be an end.  That’s because the daily problems are a symptom—not the cause.  The question becomes; are you dealing with the root of cultural turmoil or are you trying to band-aid the daily indicators of that turmoil?

Here is a way to determine if you have a deeper problem than the standard daily grind:

  1. Same thing, different day: The girls always seem to be fighting about something. Complaining, arguing and gossiping are typical.  Someone always feels left out, picked on, stepped over or disregarded.
  2. Similar themes keep emerging: Not only are the girls fighting all the time but they are fighting about the same things.  What kinds of themes emerge?  Being left out.  Cliquiness. Looks.  Attention.  Boys.  Material goods. Meanness. In the case with this one set of girls, they were arguing about  2 things– “bragging and ‘top this’ behavior” as well as the flippant way the girls dealt with each other’s feelings.  Upon sitting down for our meeting, girls talked about feeling frustrated, awkward and depressed when others talked about money, clothes and trips they got to go on each year.  They also divulged that they felt horrible when other girls said something “mean” and then called them “sensitive” when feelings got hurt.
  3. The problem never feels solved: Staff are arduously attending to day to day spats and fall out but feel like they are on a proverbial hamster wheel.  You hear from staff that “this is a particularly tough group,” they “can’t get through to them,” and they’ve “tried everything” but aren’t getting anywhere. As you can imagine, it there is a larger, cultural issue, dealing with individual daily fights doesn’t get to the heart of the matter.
  4. The staff, teachers or counselors are fed up, deflated & defeated:  Not only are the staff articulating frustration, they are starting to check out.  When arguing ensues, they step out, turn away, or try to check it off as quickly as possible so they can move on.  Follow up feels fruitless or “inviting more of the same” so it doesn’t happen. This is not out of laziness but rather lack of knowing what to do differently to get a better result.  You hear from them that the girls “don’t respect them,” “don’t listen,” and “apologize but don’t mean it.”
  5. Every girl feels hurt: Even though some girls are more popular than others, in a group where cultural breakdown has taken place, there are a great deal of hurt feelings.  Most girls, at some point, feel left out, gossiped about or disregarded.  In a young teen group I recently had the pleasure to work with, a group dynamics exercise was the perfect catalyst for an honest discussion about how they felt when a part of the group and when ostracized or alone. And when they really got honest, they were able to admit that they both felt this way and were the cause of others feeling this way. These were awesome girls but their best was being squelched by negative, recurring behavior that became an part of the group culture.

When working with groups in which cultural breakdown has clearly occurred, honest discussion is necessary.  Only then can we identify the hidden problems, isolate the instigators, set ground rules for respectful behavior and allow the girls an opportunity to authentically apologize and be accountable for their actions going forward.  Such honest discussion can’t be a one-time thing but rather done periodically with frequent follow up with a trusted, well-regarded mentor.

And one final thought—when you manage negative behavior, it’s also helpful to encourage positive behavior to take its place.  Instead of focusing on faults and failures, what strengths does this group have?  What individual assets can the girls highlight in one another?  How can they have a hand in developing a positive and powerful group of girls in which everyone feels respected?

While problems are still going to occur—as this is not a utopia—we must provide the girls with the skills to deal with them.  How can we encourage them to be inclusive rather than exclusive?  How can we support them in speaking up while still being kind and open-minded?  It takes more time and more effort but in the long run, teaching these life skills and following up on their effectiveness can transform the culture of the group and in turn, the girls themselves.  And when the girls are transformed—the culture of the groups they are part of in the future will be better for it.

 

 

 

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