Middle School Girls Speak Out about Girl Fighting

Jan 21, 2011

The phenomenon of girl fighting has piqued scholarly and popular interest in recent years, and yet few have studied the factors that contribute to the problem.  Recently a group of social work researchers decided to investigate girl fighting by interviewing several teenage girls in focus groups at middle schools in the northeastern US.  The participants of the focus groups were recruited by a guidance counselor and an assistant principal, and were selected based on their involvement with girl fighting in the school (although not all the participants had actually engaged in fights themselves).  Joan Letendre and Ellen Smith report on this research in ‘“It’s Murder Out Today”: Middle School Girls Speak Out about Girl Fighting’, in the January 2011 issue of Children and Schools journal.

The researchers interviewed the girls and analyzed the responses, finding it deepened their understanding of the issue.  For instance, the girls recognized that the fighting that took place is verbal as well as physical.  While describing hair-pulling, kicking and punching, they also said, in the words of one girl, that it is ‘really less about fighting with your fists than saying things that hurt your friends.’ The girls reported a strong emotional component to fighting, and that it is a way to release anger.

Environmental factors seem to contribute to the increase in girl fighting in middle school.  The girls reported that while in elementary school they felt the smaller and more supportive environment lessened the tendency to fight, in middle school the less structured environment, the developing adolescence of the girls, and the changes in academic and social demands led to more situations where girl fighting occurs.

Girl fighting often begins from teasing related either to appearance (clothing, etc.) or race.  Also girls often get into fights to defend friends (or because they feel betrayed by friends).  The participants described in depth how the hurtful relationship dynamics of gossip, teasing, racial stereotyping, and expectations of loyalty and betrayal trigger responses that sometimes lead to physical fighting.  The researchers concluded that to effectively address girl fighting, not only must social workers and others deal directly with the individuals involved, but they must also address the school environment which contributes to the problem.  They recommend providing classroom and small group discussions; providing girl-only classes in which gender-specific problems can be addressed; training staff to observe and intervene in potential fighting situations; and teaching girls new skills in problem solving and emotional management.

The authors recommend further research on girl fighting and on the relationship dynamics of girls in middle school to broaden the understanding of how social workers and others can successfully intervene in this critical area.