Girl Violence in the News (And How to Talk to Your Child about It)

by Peggy Moss, J.D., Bullying Prevention Expert
Girl Violence in the News (And How to Talk to Your Child about It)

Florida teens indicted for
cheerleader beating



From the violence of 6 Florida cheerleaders to three young girls on a playground in Pennsylvania, last week the issue of “Girl Bullying” hit the news in full force

Last week, two devastating stories about girls hit the national press. In one, a ten-year-old girl was yanked off of the monkey bars by two slightly older girls, who stomped on her head and her hip, causing permanent damage. The other was a videotape of 6 Florida cheerleaders seeking YouTube fame by beating a fellow cheerleader over a period of thirty minutes, causing a concussion and hearing loss, among other injuries. So far, the girls (and some of their parents) are blaming the target for demeaning messages on My Space, and none of the teens has demonstrated remorse.  Over the weekend, staff members of  the “Dr. Phil” show further fanned the publicity flames by posting bail for one of the girls in order to get her on their show  Empowering Parents asked bullying expert and award-winning author Peggy Moss to address these issues, noting, “Even if the press perhaps sensationalizes these events, don’t we still have to address these bullying episodes in order keep our children safe?”

“To assert that these stories teach us that girls are hateful and vicious by nature would be as ludicrous as outlawing cheerleading after last week, because the sport breeds violence.”
—Peggy Moss

First of all, in my opinion both of these incidents were criminal acts involving aggravated assault, and neither was, or should be, described as “bullying.”

My answer to your original question is two-fold.  First, in these instances, it’s not clear to me that the press is sensationalizing.  I saw the video (as much of it as I could bear to watch) and I read several accounts of the playground story. What happened is, in fact, monstrous. What makes the coverage sensational is the extent to which the stories take precedence over other news. This is not surprising. As parents, we have ask ourselves two questions: One is, how do we talk to our kids about what they are likely to see on YouTube or in the paper? The other is, do we now fold this bizarre, sick behavior of a few children into the dialogue about what it means to be a girl and have friends?

As to this last question, my answer is, “Please, no.” We make a mistake, (and I think it’s a big and potentially harmful mistake) when we use extremes as the basis for rule-making, or, worse, as a basis for assumptions about our child’s behavior. I am sorry that the press did not cover what happened on countless other playgrounds in North America last week, where kids ran around and played tag and jumped rope and scuttled across play sets, sharing ideas, making up stories.  While these simple exchanges did not constitute news, they were the overwhelming reality of last week.

These non-newsworthy playground moments benefit from the practical lessons we teach our children about ways to resolve conflict, allowing them to express anger in healthy ways, and giving them safe places (and people) to turn to – and they are no less applicable after these stories have hit the press. Our children need to believe that they are capable of making and maintaining meaningful relationships, and that we know that they are. If we let these outsize incidents dictate how we talk and think about girls, we risk sending our daughters a message that we are afraid for them, or that their friends are potentially dangerous, at a time when they most need to hear that we have faith in their judgment and they can count on their peers. The reality is: most of them can.  As adults we can help our daughters become savvy media consumers, and in so doing, critique not only how these situations are portrayed, but also how women and girls are portrayed in the media. We can help them put these incidents in perspective.  To fail to do so would risk unleashing a sense of distrust and suspicion that will spread as quickly and furiously as these news stories. 

To assert that these stories teach us that girls are hateful and vicious by nature would be as ludicrous as outlawing cheerleading after last week, because the sport breeds violence. No doubt some statements of this kind will be made over the upcoming weeks, and as parents, we will be called upon to help our children make sense of what they are hearing. As with any traumatic news, take cues from your child as to what they are ready to hear, and provide answers to the questions they ask, targeted to their age and maturity level.

The cheerleader story is particularly ripe for interpretation, as it involves social networking (The MySpace and YouTube component) and violence. Help your child look at the information that is being provided critically. If your child wants to discuss this incident, consider asking age-appropriate questions that have a broader application. For an older child, it is reasonable to have a fairly in-depth discussion about the situation. Again, be sure to take your daughter’s lead.  You can start the ball rolling, though. Ask questions that open up the conversation, like “What if the girl targeted by cheerleaders did post hateful messages? Does she deserve to have been beaten up? What about the kids who were there and did nothing to protect the target? What could they have done differently? Why would it have been hard to act, and what would you do to get you over that hurdle so you could do the right thing? Do you think that there are times that Internet communications get ‘heated up’ differently from real conversations? What do you think is the best thing to do if you have a really big problem with someone at school?” And finally, be sure to tell her this: “No one is perfect. Do you know that you can come to me when you feel like you are in over your head? I want you to do that.” 

If you are concerned that your daughter is disturbed by this story, or feels that something similarly horrific might happen to her, try to find out why. If she doesn’t want to talk to you about it, that’s okay. Try again later, or provide her with another adult to speak with, whether that’s a friend, a relative, or a therapist. 

I think that for any parent, reading about a child who is sick or hurt, and in particular, violently hurt, triggers for us a visceral response that is hard to keep under wraps. "What if that happened to MY CHILD?" We ask ourselves, and we well up like mama bears, ready to fight. This is a natural, maybe even involuntary, impulse. But that impulse cannot lead to us telling our children to “Watch out for your friends—they might turn on you at any instant and beat you senseless.” 

Stop. Think. Listen. Talk. As adults, we can help our children navigate the news. No doubt they are as horrified and confused by these stories as we are. Maybe even more so.    

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Peggy Moss has worked to eradicate bullying for more than a decade, first as a prosecutor with the Department of Attorney General in Maine, and later as an educator and curriculum developer with the Center for the Prevention of Hate Violence and the Cromwell Disabilities Center. Peggy has written three award-winning books for elementary-aged children on bullying, Say Something, Our Friendship Rules, co-authored by Dee Dee Tardiff, and One of Us.  She also gives seminars and bullying awareness workshops to healthcare providers, educators, students and parents in the United States and Canada. Peggy is a graduate of Princeton University and the Washington College of Law at American University, where she was head of the Juvenile Justice Association.  For more information about Peggy, see


I agree-this was not bullying, this was assault. Thanks for the tips about how to speak to my kids about this!

Comment By : Molly

There is social unrest among male and female youth and young adults in the United States that has not appeared in past generations, but has manifested itself in campus and school shootings and other violent acts. Let's not sensationalize this in the news nor stick our heads in the sand and wait for the next one to come along. There are contributing social factors that are coming out of the homes and communities of these young people and these factors (like deseases) must be controlled by parents and leaders in our communities. RESPECT for people must be taught to children and role played by adults from the corporate boardrooms to the playground. There appears to be a generation that has lost the concept of respect and must be won back if we want to reduce or stop the violence and killings.

Comment By : Les

All should be faced with JAIL time and mandatory public cleaning of streets, schools and all the garbage clean up in parks and neighborhoods once they serve their time. Also, writing letters of apology to whom they have harmed. Taking what ever classes needed like anger management. The parents of all these monsters should pay monetary damages and all doctor bills to the innocent families their children did harm too and damaged for the rest of their lives. All should not be allowed to enter the public again without serious psychiatric treatment, along with the contributing factors of these monsters the PARENTS! Why are we not addressing the parents. They are responsible for role modeling. Children are a product of their upbringing. Bill Cosby says it best on the title of his new book "COME ON PEOPLE" I believe all parents should reference his book and take a stand. Do your job and help mold your young children back into healthy constructive adults. Take your role back by becoming a leader and help the young legacy we have created, our children be good people not monsters. PARENTS need to wake up and so does the law and the media. Help our teens, they are out of control and striving for attention. They are hurting themselves. All need better guidance from the ones closest to them and most importantly love and acceptance. Maybe there would be less acts of crimes if parents told their children they loved and hugged them more often and acted interested in them. All these teens are lacking one important factor here, attention and guidance from their parents, why else would they seek it on you tube beating up another person. I am just shocked at what our young teens are capable of. It is truly scary for everyones future if it continues.

Comment By : Liza

that was just wrong of those girls to do that. thats just not right. you solve things by talking it out, not beating someone till they have perminent damage. those girls should not be let free. thats just awful. i dont care if the victim was talking about them behind their backs. that does not make it right. its wrong.

Comment By : cowgirl

It is a shame that our society of young girls find it self gratifying to bully another girl. I took my daughter out of public shcools because of the bullying she endured day after day by girls, then placed her in a private Christian school thinking this would solve the problem. It did not. Even the girls with a Christian up-bringing found it funny to call my daughter names and make her life a nightmare after knowing her only one month. And yes, then there are the parents. Parents refuse to take any responsibilty or even believe that there little darlings are capable of such horror. Everyone forgets to take a good look in their own back yards.

Comment By : gg

The biggest problems in our schools? A lack of personal respect/responsibility, little moral/religious teaching, and 50% less (divorces anyone?) parental responsibility. God forbid the day my daughter or son gets beaten up (assaulted) in school. Someone will pay for it and it won't be because I didn't care or do enough. Yes, I understand the 'chances' they could get hurt, and I have explained to them to either run or defend themselves(depends on the situation), but I avoided these 'chances' by avoiding those who did evil things and had questionable lifestyles (alcohol, drugs, sexual partners, etc). Parents need to be physically, metally, and spiritually involved in homework, schoolwork, teacher/parent cooperation and communication and just knowing what's happening in their children's schools. Oh, and one more thing, do not, I repeat, do not leave your teens/tweens at home by themselves if you can help it. Peers will be peers!

Comment By : saluter24

Great article. This myspace "thing" is another place for drama. Young girls and boys have enough drama just being preteens and teens. I feel like they are more likely to write/type anything. But to say it in person, they would think twice. Technology is great as is the web, but misused and unsupervised its a dangerous toy. I won't let my daughter have a myspace any more. I had her delete it several weeks ago because she did not follow my rules of what should be posted, etc. I've decided that it's not worth having back, either.

Comment By : MomFromTheSouth

There is no doubt these girls need to be held accountable for what they did, but lets not lay it all at the parents feet. My own family, while growing up, is the perfect example that the parents influence does not hold as much weight as many think it does. I have one brother and no sisters. Our biological parents were married and provided a pretty stable home. I graduated from high school, had some college, held a decent job, got married, and now have a family of my own. My brother never finished high school, couldn't hold a job for more than a few months at a time, was (and still is) an alcoholic, has a police record longer than my arm, including multiple DWI's, never married but has three kids out of wedlock, he is verbally abusive, and the list goes on... How can anyone possibly blame it all on my parents upbringing skills? There are certainly enough parents out there that need a kick in the rear (or worse) for the things they teach their kids, but most of them do the best they can. My 17 year old daughter has known for years the difference between right and wrong, and if she ever beat someone up like that, I would personally escort her to the police station! By the time most kids reach their teen years, you have no way of knowing what they are doing 24/7, regardless of how much you THINK you know. Teach them right from wrong and pray they use their judgment as you have taught them. That is all you can do...

Comment By : verylate

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