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Sugar and fight: The dark side of girl power

Psychologist James Garbarino, author of “See Jane Hit,” explores the rise in aggressive behavior in young females. Here's an excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY

We all know that "girl power" has become a popular motivator over the years, but there is growing concern that this positive reinforcement is not without consequence. Girls may be expressing themselves a bit too physically these days. Gone are the days of girls made simply of sugar and spice and everything nice. Instead, there is a new American girl, one who is becoming more aggressive, and she is not afraid to make contact. We're seeing girls and young women embrace their physical power now more than ever, from the playing field to the big screen. But is there a downside? That's the subject explored in "See Jane Hit: Why Girls Are Growing More Violent and What We Can Do About It" by James Garbarino, a psychologist who has studied the effects of violence on adolescents for several years. Garbarino was invited on the “Today” show to discuss the book. Here’s an excerpt:

Youth violence is in the news. After two decades of public outcry about juvenile violence the newspaper headlines may seem unremarkable at first glance: "Teen Hazing Turns Vicious," "Gang Beats Man Senseless," "Teenagers Indicted for Murder," "School Shooter Sought Revenge for Put Downs," "Youth Arrested in Murder Plot Aimed at Parents." Many people will be surprised to hear that the perpetrators in all of these cases were girls. The violence perpetrated by boys has been on our minds as a serious issue for many years.  But violent girls? What's that all about?

According to the U. S. Department of Justice, while criminal violence among teenage boys today still far exceeds criminal violence among teenage girls, the gap is narrowing.  Twenty-five years ago, for every ten boys arrested for assault, there was only one girl. Now there are only four boys arrested for each girl arrested. Put simply, the official arrest data indicate that girls today assault people and get arrested more often than did the girls of generations past.

But the news from the front lines about American girls today is not just about criminal violence. Here are some other headlines worth noting: "Girls’ Rugby is the Fastest-Growing Phenomenon in the Country," "Kidnapper Foiled as Girl Recalls Dad's Lesson: Fight," "Girl Saves Parents from Muggers," "Training Program Teaches Girls Self Confidence," "Girl Athletes Command New Respect from Peers." This too is the American girl.

Girls in general are evidencing a new assertiveness and physicality that goes far beyond criminal assault. It is evident in their participation in sports, in their open sensuality, in their enjoyment of "normal" aggression that boys have long enjoyed in rough-and-tumble play, and in the feeling of confidence that comes with physical prowess and power.

We should welcome the New American Girl's unfettered assertiveness and physicality. We should appreciate her athletic accomplishments, like the way she stands up for herself, and applaud her straightforward appreciation of herself as a physical being. But I believe that the increasing violence among troubled girls and the generally elevated levels of aggression in girls are unintended consequences of the general increase in normal girls’ getting physical and becoming more assertive. All of this, the good news of liberation and the bad news of increased aggression, is the New American Girl.

While it's true that female adolescents make most of the headlines, the real story starts in childhood. Many people believe that adolescence typically brings about dramatic and unpredictable changes in kids. In her classic book "Children Without Childhood," Marie Winn speaks of "The Myth of the Teenage Werewolf" to express this belief:  "A pervasive myth has taken hold of parents' imagination… Its message is that no matter how pleasant and sweet and innocent their child might be at the moment, how amiable and docile and friendly, come the first hormonal surge of puberty and the child will turn into an uncontrollable monster."

But systematic research belies this expectation. The overwhelming majority of children (about 80 percent) avoid dramatic tumultuous change as they enter adolescence. Instead, they become teenaged versions of the children they were. Childhood is the time when basic patterns of behavior emerge. These patterns then provide the foundation for what happens in adolescence. For most girls — and boys, for that matter — adolescence is the coming to fruition or intensification of childhood patterns of behavior and development, not some dramatic change of course or profound transformation of character. For example, most high school dropouts were struggling academically in elementary school. Most depressed teenagers were sad children. Most teenagers who have trouble with relationships were socially unskilled as children or had problems with attachment. And, most violent youth were aggressive children. Research reveals that many personality traits show a great deal of continuity despite the fact that when you ask individuals directly, they “think” they have changed. This is one reason why the myths about adolescence endure.

There are exceptions, of course, but mostly adolescents are what they were in childhood, only more so. This is not to say that there are no special features of adolescents that distinguish them from children. Their brains do mature. Thus, for example, while many young teenagers have great difficulty assessing the emotions of others correctly, most older adolescents have achieved adultlike competence in this area. Similarly, most adolescents become capable of more abstract thinking than they were capable of in childhood, and this has implications for everything from their school work to their moral judgments, from their concept of themselves to their ability to argue with their parents and peers.

Teenagers do struggle with the rapid and dramatic physical changes brought on by puberty. Thus, many have heightened concerns about body image that translate into issues of self-esteem. Teenagers have to work out emotionally loaded issues revolving around their orientation to peers. The impulse to peer conformity peaks as kids leave childhood and enter adolescence, and the judgment and behavior of teenagers are vulnerable to distortion in response to peer influences.

What’s more, adolescence does bring on shifts of allegiance, with attachments that were once principally focused on parents shifting more to peers. This does highlight the importance of the cultural content of peer relations. Research reveals that anti-social and self-destructive elements of peer culture are particularly likely to get transmitted to kids in adolescence.

This perspective on adolescence has important implications for our understanding of how physical aggression fits into the life of the New American Girl. Specifically, the increasing problem of violent female teenagers is mostly not a matter of non-aggressive girls learning to be more aggressive when they reach adolescence. Although the ramifications and severity of aggression may shift as girls enter adolescence, the basics of aggression do not lie in the developmental changes brought on by adolescence. No, they start in childhood.

The fact is, children — boys and girls — start out aggressive, and for the first three years of life girls and boys are almost equally aggressive. But traditionally, most little girls have been more ready and able than most little boys to exchange physical aggression for more subtle, effective, and socially acceptable tactics for getting what they want and for expressing themselves. Why? This difference emerged for two reasons. First, little girls developed more social competence than little boys, and as a result did not need the clumsy tool of physical aggression to get their needs met. Second, powerful pressures were applied to girls to persuade them to "give up" physical aggression because it was not “feminine” to hit. What is more, they were told to give up assertive physicality more generally in favor of verbal interaction, and eventually, passive sexuality.

Following this traditional pattern, girls then reached adolescence having learned the social competencies necessary to get what they wanted and to forego physical aggression when they didn't, and to forego rough and tumble physicality generally (and sexually). When they didn't get what they wanted, girls learned to redirect their aggressive impulses to non-physical modes of assault,  using words and manipulating feelings in what has come to be known as relational aggression. These same forces encouraged passivity in relation to boys, and put young women at risk for being victimized by predatory males in general. But none of this is written in stone.

As the conditions that cause girls to learn to be socially competent change, and the pressures to give up physical aggression decline, girls can and will become more and more likely to hold onto physical aggression in their early years and make use of it later on. They will also become more likely to behave violently when they are troubled and socially ineffective.  In this they resemble the boys I have known who have trouble with childhood aggression that blossoms into violence when they enter into adolescence, particularly when they face social and emotional deprivation and trauma.

For more than thirty years my professional life has revolved around my efforts to understand, prevent, and resolve violence in the lives of children and youth — in families, in schools, in neighborhoods, and in war zones around the world. Mostly I have been concerned with the violent and aggressive behavior of boys, with girls appearing in my writing mostly as victims. Twenty books, hundreds of lectures and articles, and a million air miles later, I find myself starting over, focusing on aggressive girls rather than boys because the new social and psychological realities demand such a shift of focus.

In my 1999 book, "Lost Boys," I wrote as a psychologist about the pathways from childhood aggression to youth violence in boys. Why boys? Because violence has long been a predominantly male issue. Historically, males have accounted for 90 percent of murders in America, and for most of the serious violence that reaches the court system and finds its way into our prisons. When in 1986, I addressed a social work conference in Michigan on the topic, "Towards a Violence-Free Michigan" I began my presentation with the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that if "a violence-free Michigan" was the goal, an effective strategy would be "to round up every man and boy and move them to Indiana." Today, I could not make that joke with quite the same scientific confidence.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the last decade of the twentieth century witnessed a dramatic shift in criminal violence rates for girls and boys. I believe this shift transcends the problems with changing definitions and policing policies noted by some criminologists. Criminal violence perpetrated by adolescent females increased at a time when the rate for adolescent males was decreasing. From 1990 to 1999 the rate of aggravated assault among girls under eighteen went up 57 percent, while for boys it went down 5 percent. During that same period weapons violence increased 44 percent for girls  and decreased 7 percent for boys.  If we move beyond these potentially lethal forms of violence to look more generally at criminal aggression, we see that during the 1990s the growth of offenses against people (as opposed to property crimes) for U.S. girls was 157 percent while for boys it was 71 percent.  In Canada the comparable figures are 68 percent for girls and 22 percent for boys. Criminal violence among girls has been increasing across North America.

But so has more "normal" aggression. Girls are learning martial arts, participating in contact sports like hockey and rugby, and generally roughhousing more than ever before.  Girls are getting physical in dramatically new ways, throwing and catching balls, lifting weights, and running track, as never before. They are also hitting people more and more on the playing fields of our communities, in our movies and television programs, in the classrooms, hallways, and cafeterias of our schools, and in the living rooms and kitchens of our homes.

The targets of this aggression are still all too often themselves. Troubled girls have long engaged in self-destructive behavior, mainly by internalizing negative views of themselves, by getting depressed, by accepting victimization by predatory males, and by manifesting their pain and sadness through physical symptoms like head aches, stomachaches, and eating disorders (what is called "somaticizing"). Now girls are becoming more physical when they are assaulting themselves, cutting and starving, poisoning and shooting themselves in record numbers. Why?

I believe it is because at the same time that girls are being liberated from many of the constraints of rigid and oppressive sexual stereotypes (the pervasive message that "it's not ladylike to do X, Y, and Z"), they have also been confronting an ever more toxic social environment. The elements of this social toxicity include spirit-deadening superficial materialism, reduced benevolent adult authority and supervision, civic cynicism, and fragmentation of community, all promulgated through the vehicle of pop culture that often undermines legitimate adult authority and promotes a vivid linking of assertive sexuality with explicit aggression. All of these social toxins stimulate aggressive behavior. This is decisive, when coupled with the fact that girls have the innate capacity to be aggressive and the fact that the cultural pressures for girls to give up physical aggression early and seek alternatives have been declining.

Thus, the issue we face is not simply the thousands of criminally violent girls who make the headlines and go to prison, or the hundreds of girls who kill themselves each year, but the larger question of how and why the role of physical aggression in girls is changing across the board. It's about the changing lives of our daughters, our nieces, our sisters, and our granddaughters, for better and for worse. It's time to take a good hard look at changing patterns of physicality and aggression in girls. More and more parents, teachers, and counselors are starting to confront this issue. It is starting to come into focus as parents observe behavior in their daughters that takes them off guard.

Barbara is a friend of mine, a teacher. She is in her mid 40s, and I've known her for ten years. I've been to her home and met her family, including her husband and her daughter Melissa. Over the years Barbara has talked often and with pride about her daughter's achievements and activities. She's obviously pleased with the way her daughter takes on the world in an assertive way, riding horses, playing sports, having relationships with boys that are friendly, without the constraints that Barbara remembers from her own childhood.  Melissa is now 14, and Barbara recounted this story about Melissa's recent high school tennis match:

Melissa is a high school athlete. She plays tennis and soccer. Last week she played against another team from a neighboring community. I was there to cheer her on, and it was clear that the other team's girls brought a real "attitude" with them to the match. They were insulting my daughter and her teammates, making nasty remarks, that sort of thing. After the match my daughter said to me, "Mom, that girl was such a bitch and there was nothing I could do about it. That's the trouble with tennis, it's such a polite sport. If this were soccer I could have just knocked her over and that would be that."

Barbara didn't know quite what to make of Melissa's statement. On the one hand, she is proud that her daughter is not cowed into submission by her opponents' verbal aggression. But on the other hand, Barbara is not sure that she likes the fact that her daughter seems to be part of a trend in which more and more girls are adopting a traditionally male approach to conflict: hit them and be done with it. What's a mother to do?

Here's another example. A young father seeks me out after a public lecture based upon my book "Lost Boys." He's a thirty-five year-old up-and-coming executive working for a high-tech company, and is very serious about being a husband and father. With a worried look on his face he says: “Yesterday I took our three year old daughter to the park. At one point I told her she had to get off the slide because it was time to go home for dinner. As I went to pick her up she slapped me! I was so stunned I didn't know what to do. If our son had done that I would have known how to respond, but what do I do when it's my daughter? Boys hit, of course, but girls?  My little girl?”  What's a father to do?

I think most effective parents have a whole tool box of techniques for dealing with aggression in boys, tools that generally work pretty well and have stood the test of time, based upon evidence showing that by the time boys leave adolescence only about 5 percent have problems controlling their aggression. But many parents seem perplexed by physical aggression in girls.  Why? For the most part they never felt they needed to deal with this issue before because the culture around them uniformly and homogeneously taught girls it was not lady-like to hit. That has changed, and now parents need new child-rearing techniques. Part of raising girls today is figuring out how to find a balance between encouraging assertive physicality and avoiding problematic aggression. But how to find that balance?

To understand better what is going on, I have been asking teenage girls and young women to reflect upon their experiences with physical aggression?against others and against themselves. I have been posing these questions to the "normal" girls and young women I know in the university classroom and to the troubled girls and women I meet in my professional capacity dealing with criminally violent youth.  I have been asking them to reflect upon their experiences and the experiences of their peers, reaching back into childhood and early adolescence, and then to report back to me in the form of brief memoirs. I have drawn from the two hundred reports I collected to put a human face on the body of research on aggression that provides the foundation for my analysis of the New American Girl and the role of social toxicity in her life. To protect the privacy of my informants, I have changed details in their accounts and altered identifying information, keeping the essence of the reports. 

What can we see of the role of aggression in the lives of our girls? The German poet Goethe once wrote: “What is most difficult? That which you think is easiest, to see what is before your eyes.” I feel this way about the topic of girls' physical aggression. Having committed myself to putting aside preconceptions and comfortable traditional assumptions about girls and aggression I see it before me now much more clearly.

Consider some of the statistics:A study of physical aggression in young children reports that at age four girls are nearly as likely to use physical aggression as boys (24 percent versus. 27 percent).

Thirty years ago, research showed that the effects of TV violence in stimulating aggression were mostly confined to boys. Now the effects are equally apparent for girls and boys.

A study of aggression in eleven thousand children ages six to twelve reported that "girls initially declined but then caught up with (and exceeded in the case of hostile attribution biases) boys in each of the variables…"

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services data reveals that each year 7 percent of female students have been involved in a physical fight on school property (versus 18 percent of male students).

According to the most widely cited study of spousal violence in the United States, the rate of physical assault by women against men in couples is 12.4 percent versus 12.2 percent for men against women; for severe assault it is 4.6 percent for women against men versus 5 percent for men against women

According to the American Humane Association the majority (59 percent) of cases of physical child abuse involve women (mothers) as perpetrators; for 32 percent of the fatal cases it is the mother acting alone.

The wisdom of Goethe’s insight is brought home to me regularly. These data have been hiding in plain sight.

I think something important is happening in the lives of our girls as we begin the  twenty-first century, but we haven't yet seen it for what it really is. The first challenge we face is seeing what is in front of us. That's not as easy as it sounds. Often, important social trends are hidden in plain sight. Few commentators detected the growing mental health crisis in middle-class American high school boys precipitated by homophobic bullying, harassment, and emotional violence coupled with the onslaught of violent images present in popular culture (TV, video games, movies, and music), until they exploded in the school shootings of the 1990s, exemplified by the Columbine High School massacre in April 1999. Only then was there a significant national response, heralded by the White House Summit on Youth Violence held in May of that year. Sometimes it's hard to see things that are happening right in front of us.

Some big events emerge through rapid crystallization of trends long in the making but mostly hidden from view. This is one reason for our frequent historical blindness about social change. In these cases, a dramatic change occurs once a social trend crosses a previously undefined line, a threshold. Students of disease transmission (epidemiologists) call this a tipping point, as when a flu virus already present in the population rapidly spreads to become an epidemic. We see it most clearly when an apparently slow and orderly process of change suddenly escalates rapidly, and there is a wholesale transformation that is often stunning in its dramatic appearance. We may be witnessing a tipping point in the changing nature of physical aggression in American girls.

Another cause of our blindness to emergent social change is suggested by findings from the branch of science that has come to be best known as Chaos theory. Chaos theory tells us that social and physical systems are often interconnected in ways that are complex, hard to detect, and sometimes the result of influences that are impossible to measure with complete precision. As a result, it is difficult to predict the ultimate effects of even small changes in one or more of these systems because the pattern of changes does not take a simple form that we may describe easily or arises suddenly in a manner that defies conventional predictions.

Excerpted from “See Jane Hit” by James Garbarino. Copyright © 2006 by James Garbarino. Published by Penguin Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.