Three Main Differences in How Boys and Girls Bully

Both boys and girls bully and are bullied. In this post, we take a look at some key differences in how boys and girls bully.

By Dena Kohleriter, LCSW Licensed Clinician | Sep 05, 2018
Gender Bullying

Both boys and girls bully and are bullied. In many ways, bullying behavior looks the same between boys and girls, but there are several key differences that are important to notice. Trends among boys and girls in bullying are not a rule. Of course, some boys engage in behavior that more closely mirrors the typical girl behavior and vice versa. But understanding the trends can help adults working with kids to identify bullying behavior and appropriately intervene. 

Here are some of the main ways that boys and girls bully differently.

1. Boys are more physical; girls are more verbal

Boys are more likely to display physical intimidation toward others as a form of bullying, whether it is direct violence or the threat of violence. Girls, on the other hand, are more likely to use verbal insults and social isolation, such as talking behind someone’s back or cutting someone from a friend group.

2. Boys are out in the open; girls are more secretive

Boys are more likely to bully in plain sight – starting fights in the hallway or pushing someone on the playground. Girls, however, are more likely to hide their bullying, disguising their behavior or acting in a passive-aggressive manner. Cyber bullying (bullying behind a screen) is common in both groups, but girls participate in it more frequently. This is likely because it can be hidden or anonymous.

3. Boys will bully both boys and girls; girls mostly bully other girls

Girls are less likely to bully boys than their peers. However, boys will bully either boys or girls. Women have a natural desire to connect with others and that can turn into a sense that girls must vie for these spots. Yet girls are told it is not socially acceptable to physically fight or display aggressive behaviors in the open, and so they often fight other girls more passively (see #2).

Bullying usually occurs among younger teens and pre-teens and begins to fade by the later teen years. We often see bullying on a continuum. It peaks between 4th and 5th grade. Around 6th and 7th grade, bullying often becomes sexual harassment as teens go through puberty. By high school, it can morph into dating violence.

What can we do? Here are three suggestions.

1. We need to re-think our standards for what it means to be a man or a woman. 

As a society, we say that we expect men to stand up for themselves. We expect women to be soft and amenable. When adolescents internalize these messages, they become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Boys will start to stand up for themselves because they think they should. Girls will hide their animosity and their behavior will leak out in secretive, hurtful ways.

2. We need to talk with kids about friendships and bullying from an early age. 

We need to talk about how we treat each other, that words and actions can harm people. Emotional abuse can often be more painful than physical abuse. We have to make these conversations proactive, and not just reactive. We have to involve the whole community in these conversations. We have to reiterate again and again that it is not acceptable to hurt others, physically or emotionally. And we have to start very early – as young as toddlers.

3. We need to teach kids about the differences between friends and acquaintances. 

Not every student in a kid’s class is going to be her friend, just like not every adult in your workplace is your friend. We form connections with some people over others, and that is natural. It can be confusing for children when adults tell them that everyone has to be their friend. BUT – this is the important part – they must treat EVERYBODY with respect and kindness. Identifying that not everyone is a friend, but everyone deserves respect is important in helping kids learn to be kind to those who are different from them or who they don’t have a friendship connection with.

In many ways, boys and girls bully the same. Both groups make racist, sexist and/or homophobic remarks. Both often turn on their friends – friends one minute, perpetrator/victim the next. Both groups participate in cyber-bullying. So to some extent, any work to eliminate bullying behavior and help kids learn different, appropriate ways to interact with each other is important. Understanding the differences in how boys and girls engage with each other can help us, as adults, connect with kids and intervene appropriately.