Bullying is viewed as a male problem, but girls bully one another just as commonly. Their tactics are different, but the outcome is the same. As with boys, bullying as a stand-alone issue is dangerous but it can become deadly when layered on top of other pressures girls face. It significantly disrupts healthy identity development.
As I did earlier this week with SSA male youth, I would like to paint a portrait of the SSA female youth that I encounter. For brevity, “SSA female youth” refers to both those who identify as LGBT+ and those who experience same-sex attraction but as a matter of faith neither identify as lesbian nor act upon such desires. Let us consider the weight of burdens experienced by both of these types of teens.
(1) Many SSA female youth report a sense of feeling different just like SSA male youth. This sense of “differentness” usually emerges as a stressor in elementary or middle school as same-gender peer integration difficulties emerge. Like boys, these girls sense that other girls possess something they lack. Unlike boys, girls who feel rejected by their own gender find it more difficult to be accepted by the opposite gender. They feel excluded from both boys and girls accentuating the sense that they do not fit in anywhere.
(2) I routinely encounter girls who fall into three categories (often more than one). Those who have been sexually abused; those who have debilitating body image concerns; and those who emotionally over-identify with other girls. Being emotionally driven, such girls easily fall into codependency or relational addiction where they find their value and security as attached to or dependent upon other girls. In some cases, their value is shattered when girl friends open to new friendships that leave them feeling like an allegiance or bond has been violated.
(3) When bullying is added to the mix, SSA female youth experience deep depression. Girls bully one another in emotional ways playing into their greatest vulnerability. They use gossip, name-calling and exclusion as their weapons. They bully in more hidden ways, so they get caught less frequently than boys. SSA female youth who exhibit accentuated male traits usually suffer the most because both girls and boys target them with teasing and taunts. That said, I meet very effeminate females who report severe emotional bullying. The pain, regardless of their femininity, forces a social withdrawal from peers that brings on depression and potentially other disorders (eating, cutting).
Like boys, the long-term accumulation of bullying incidents creates unhealthy disruptions to identity development. First, it generates a fearful expectation of impending physical or verbal assault. Second, it produces an anxious anticipation of peer rejection. Third, it yields an inner shame that can fuel withdrawal from friends, family and faith. Fourth, it solidifies a distorted perception that one is viewed as weak, weird, and/or unworthy. If these burdens become too heavy, these SSA female youth shut down and give up.
When you add to these issues other stressors – such as verbal abuse or yelling in the home, physical or sexual abuse, emotional complexes and psychological disorders, divorce or death of parents, judgment and rejection, and school difficulties – the risk factors for suicide climb dramatically. Even without a strong suicidal inclination, identity development has been substantially disrupted.
We must prove to these young women that we will listen to them, really hear their concerns, and walk with them no matter what. This is tough work: if they have experienced deep emotional wounds, the first order of business is to provide them a safe place where their feelings and emotions are accepted as valid. If they do not at a minimum sense safety, their opportunity to re-engage healthy identity development will remain low.
Join me Monday for Jenny’s story. Her story is common – it does not involve bullying; rather, Jenny developed a body image deficit hang-up that led her to idealize the bodies of other girls. At some point, she became convinced that she must be gay. But is she? Join me next week to find out.
NOTE: I define “healthy identity development” as the process by which a child incrementally grows into an independent adult who is secure in his or her gifts, talents, interests, capabilities, body image and spiritual purposes; who is functional in giving and receiving social, emotional, and spiritual support; who is free of sexual and substance addictions and destructive disorders (eating, cutting); and who experiences this growth process free of abuse, assault and intimidation. This definition levels the playing field by showing that all of us ultimately have wounded identities. I stress the impact of bullying because this preventable wound is a top risk factor for suicidality. If we want to help teens stay on the path to healthy identity formation, we must – as people of faith – be definitively engaged in preventing bullying.
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