The problem of angry girls

Written by: Karen Sullivan | Published:
Image: iStock

The figures suggest that girls are becoming more violent, but what is behind this and what can be done? Karen Sullivan advises

The shocking story of an 87-year-old woman being punched in the face by two teenaged girls, when she (politely suggested) that they end their stand-off with a bus driver is perhaps indicative of a growing trend for female violence and a simmering rage that drives it.

One in five of all violent crimes and some 35 per cent of domestic violence reported to the England and Wales Crime Survey involved a female perpetrator. Figures from 2011 show that female violent crime rose by 12 per cent in the previous five years.

Another report found that violence is the most common first-time crime for a third of girl offenders. Statistics from the Youth Justice Board show that the number of violent offences committed by female juveniles has risen by 28 per cent from 8,702 in 2002/03 to 11,155 in 2009/10. The BBC is just about to air a documentary on the subject, which lends further credence to the idea that this is a trend that cannot and should not be ignored.

So what is driving this increase? The rise of the ladette culture certainly doesn’t help, nor does increased violence in society, alcohol abuse and binge-drinking in young teens, or girls simply mimicking boys. In fact, “mean girls” has become a popular term to describe the growing culture of girls who bully and become violent – and something to which many girls, particularly those in gangs – aspire to.

Anger is a commonly experienced emotion in the teenaged years, partly to do with hormones, but also because of outside influences that lead to a feeling of powerlessness that is ultimately expressed as rage.

A Harvard Medical School study found that nearly two-thirds of adolescents in the US have a history of anger attacks. It also found that one in 12 young people (close to six million adolescents) meet criteria for a diagnosis of Intermittent Explosive Disorder (IED), a syndrome characterised by persistent uncontrollable anger attacks not accounted for by other mental disorders. One of their recommendations is school-based violence-prevention programmes.

Another study, undertaken by the University of Cambridge, indicates that the brains of adolescent girls with high levels of anti-social/violent behaviour are wired differently. They measured the girls’ ability to recognise the six primary facial expressions – anger, disgust, sadness, fear, surprise and happiness – and found that girls with anti-social behaviour made a large number of errors when asked to recognise anger and disgust, but had no problems recognising other facial expressions.

All of this adds up to a problem that is perhaps more insidious than previously believed, posing a significant challenge to schools and others.

Anger management is an obvious solution, but how can it be undertaken successfully? Ofsted’s 2008 report on engaging disaffected students found that schools who deployed staff (often teaching assistants) to work with disaffected students, often on a one-to-one basis, achieved significant results.

Some create specialist rooms that are designed to be calming, with background music and softened lighting, for interventions to take place, with mood boards where students can create a visual representation of their changing moods, and reward boards through which successes can be celebrated.

An important tool for changing behaviour is teaching students to analyse their own emotions. When rage strikes, they should be encouraged to work on problem-solving skills. What are the core emotions that drive the anger – disappointment, embarrassment, fear, powerlessness? Rather than lashing out, either physically or verbally, how can the situation be changed?

Use a PSHE class to talk about anger, and ask students what their triggers are – either in discussion or in a personal document. Ask them how they deal with anger and what helps them to relax. Self-awareness goes a long way to addressing the problem. Does exercise, music, talking through problems with parents or a school mentor/counsellor or designated teacher help? Ask them to come up for solutions to the rising levels of violence, and their ideas for its cause. What are the alternatives? What support do they think they need?

Talk about the power of positive thinking. For example, shutting their eyes and repeating “I am in control” or “I can deal with this”, and encourage them to use intense feelings creatively – writing a journal, a song, a poem, or painting/drawing. There are numerous studies indicating that creative expression provides a safe and healthy outlet for anger.

Think about introducing an “anger room”, where students can go to relax and manage their feelings before they get out of control, with gentle activities available to provide an outlet.

The more tools a student has to deal with extreme emotions, the better able he or she will be able to cope with them and develop the skills necessary to avoid them in future.

A plethora of research suggests that a supportive school environment, where students feel a part of a community, and are inspired to develop their interpersonal skills with adults and peers alike, can make a dramatic difference.

The truth is that many of the problems that underpin aggressive behaviour are the result of unhealthy and unhappy experiences with other significant adults in their lives. If we find a way to create a secure, nurturing environment, and provide students with techniques to become more resilient and able to manage their emotions, there is hope that we can change a trend that can only end in tragedy.

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email

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