Girls can be mean. Really mean. Sometimes frighteningly mean. Understanding what makes bullies tick and how parenting habits might inadvertently contribute to aggressive and rude behavior is fundamental.

Bullying isn't only a boy thing. Girls can start to be nasty with each other as early as kindergarten.


Girls can be mean. Really mean. Sometimes frighteningly mean, as was the case last year when a 15-year-old student hanged herself from a stairwell after enduring continual verbal and physical threats at her Massachusetts high school. According to the New York Times, four of the six accused perpetrators were girls.


Ever since the publication of Rosalind Wiseman's "Queen Bees and Wannabes" a few years ago, there's been a growing interest in the phenomenon of female nastiness and aggression –– if not the overt kind in Massachusetts, then the more subtle kind of girl-on-girl bullying that manifests itself in social ostracism. For example, who gets invited to a party, who sits where, and so forth.


But it's not merely high school or middle school girls who engage in put-downs and intimidation. Bullying behavior can start as early as kindergarten.


"I probably end up seeing more of the victims of bullying (than the bullies themselves) –– and it is girls bullying," said Kellie Branch-Dircks, a licensed clinical social worker at Proctor Hospital's Counseling Center in Peoria, Ill. "I see it from a personal level, with having a young girl in school, to a professional level. (Girls) have been intimidated, called names in public settings, excluded, ganged up on –– I think it's something that's always happened, but it's becoming a bigger issue, and it's also gaining more attention as an issue."


Hence, attention must be paid –– not only to kids targeted by bullies, but also to bullies themselves. Understanding what makes bullies tick and how parenting habits might inadvertently contribute to aggressive and rude behavior is fundamental.


But first of all, who is a bully?


There is no typical profile, Branch-Dircks said. Bullies, whether boys or girls, are found in all schools, come from all socio-economic backgrounds and often from families who, on the surface, at least, would seem to be ideal.


That's because a child with a good upbringing can simply go wrong later in life, and there's only so much a parent can do, Branch-Dircks said.


Nevertheless, children first learn, or fail to be taught, values at home.


"It starts at home with children feeling good about themselves, feeling unconditional love and respect from the parent or the guardian," said Kristy Hemmele, a clinician at Counseling & Family Services in Peoria, Ill. "They need to feel unconditional love and respect from the get-go.


“If they don't feel that respect and that acceptance and that love, they will find it in other ways: 'I've got to feel good about myself, so I'm going to make you feel bad.' Jealousy is a big part of it but, also, plain not feeling accepted: 'I wasn't accepted in this game of playing dolls so I'm not going to be nice to you.'


"It just progresses on and on until someone –– teacher, coach, parent, youth leader, counselor –– recognizes that child and takes them under their wing and let's them know that they're OK."


Sometimes, though, parents go astray even when they don't intend to.


"A lot of parents try their hardest and do their best," said Ted Chapin of Chapin & Russell Associates in Peoria, Ill. "Some are very strong-minded, but they inadvertently teach their kids to lean on the side of being aggressive rather than cooperative. They may be well-intended: 'Stand up for yourself.' 'Be strong.' Kids don't get the breadth of the message, which is also 'Be empathetic.' 'Be cooperative.'


"Sometimes you have passive parents, on the other end, who don't take charge and teach the proper way to resolve problems," Chapin continued. "They just ignore it and let their kids step all over them. That's not going to work either, of course. Healthy parenting is stopping the kid, talking about the problem, working out solutions and redirecting them and encouraging them to better, more cooperative behavior."


That means learning basic communication, problem-solving and relationship skills; the ability to be assertive without being aggressive, to solve personal problems without taking out frustration on others and to learn when to trust people, Branch-Dircks said. But because they are role models, parents must be attentive to how they, themselves, resolve problems within the family.


"How they act when they are embarrassed, disappointed or angry, for instance," Branch-Dircks said. "Everyone experiences the same feelings; the difference is in how you respond to them."


A good training ground for building interpersonal skills can be church youth organizations, Girl Scouts and similar organizations.


"Usually kids who have had experience in social cooperation, they're on the same team and they have to work together to make something happen –– they develop more empathy skills, more cooperation skills, more problem-solving and communication skills, " Chapin said. "It all has to do with people joining together toward one common goal or challenge to overcome. Put your kids in social situations where they work together with others to have to cooperate, to have to empathize, to solve problems together."


At stake isn't merely raising non-aggressive girls and boys but human beings with a broader vision of themselves and the world.


"Confidence and maturity isn't just about being strong," Chapin said. "It's about the other side –– listening and empathizing and connecting with people."


Gary Panetta can be reached at gpanetta@pjstar.com.