Are there differences between male and female bullies?

Relational Aggression

Mean girls in action
Mean girls in action
Erin Patrice O'Brien/Taxi/Getty Images

Up until the age of 4, kids tend to show aggression in the same way; they'll grab toys out of another kid's hands or push someone who makes them mad [source: Talbot]. But researchers at Brigham Young University have shown that girls as young as 4 have learned how to manipulate their peers to exclude kids and become the queen of the sandbox [source: Starr]. They'll tell lies and secrets to get other kids to shun the offender.

That means that before kindergarten, girls have started practicing relational aggression, a term that's been used to describe the type of bullying that's the specialty of adolescent girls. Rather than just bullying weak kids they hardly know, as male bullies do, female bullies go after their closest relationships. The female bully is hard to catch in action and difficult to punish; there is, after all, no bloody nose to serve as proof. Instead, victims carry emotional scars resulting from the bully's habits of spreading rumors, leaking secrets, savage put-downs, backstabbing and social exclusions. Bullies may demean a person's choice of clothing or exclude a friend from the guest list for a popular party in order to gain social status within a group of girls. At the same time, they send the victim into social exile, a particularly painful place for a young girl.

Boys also tend to bully others in order to gain social status, so it seems that bullies share certain motivations -- need for attention, fear of competition, anger at the way they're treated at home. And in the long-term, female bullies suffer as much as male bullies, because eventually, those closest to them tire of the manipulations, though there's a lack of research as to whether female bullies turn to drugs and alcohol and end up in jail at the same rates that male bullies do.

There are a few key differences, though: Male bullies come in all shapes and sizes, from the popular football captain to the social outcast, while female bullies tend to be the popular girls (another factor that may help them escape punishment). And while some male bullies appear to lash out because they haven't developed empathy for others, girls seem to possess ample amounts of empathy; so much so, in fact, that they know exactly how to harm a perceived threat. Because girls tend to put so much emphasis on friendships, female bullies know how to get a fellow female to divulge a secret, and then she knows how to reveal it in a way that will maximize the embarrassment for the victim.

During middle and high school, it may be important for parents to remind their daughters that true friends aren't manipulative, negative or mean. Such a warning may seem commonsense, but few things make sense in adolescence. Unfortunately, the high school cafeteria isn't the last place where a woman will go up against a female bully.