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Girl Wars: 12 Strategies That Will End Female Bullying Paperback – August 5, 2003

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Editorial Reviews

About the Author

Cheryl Dellasega, Ph.D., author of Surviving Ophelia, is a nurse-practitioner, the mother of a teenaged daughter, and founder of Camp Ophelia, Club Ophelia, and other dynamic programs for girls. She is on the faculty of the College of Medicine at Penn State University in Hershey, Pennsylvania, where she lives.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.


Anna's thirteenth birthday is only a day away when her two best friends inform her with mock sadness that they won't be coming to her sleepover party.

"Tina asked us to go to the movies with her. That's way more fun than watching videos at your house and playing those stupid games your mom comes up with," they snicker, linking arms and walking away.

An older girl begins to make fun of newcomer Monica's scrawny build whenever they pass each other in the halls of their small rural high school. Even though fifteen-year-old Monica switches from wearing her favorite skirts and dresses to jeans, soon everyone is calling her "chicken legs" and cackling when she passes.

At ten, Lucy hates playground. Every day when the teacher is distracted, a boy will swoop up and snap the back of Lucy's new bra, which barely contains her B-cup breasts. Worse yet is the betrayal of girls, who cluster together and laugh when that happens. Even Lucy's former friends have started sticking out their chests mockingly and strutting behind her.

Day after day, fifteen-year-old Shantal and her crowd of friends face off against fourteen-year-old Erika and her group. In the cafeteria of their inner-city school, Shantal calls Erika a "slut" because she is dating Reese, a good-looking seventeen-year-old. In return, Erika shoves past Shantal and mutters "bitch" just loud enough to be heard. The confrontations grow more and more heated until one day between classes Erika punches Shantal in the face, an encounter that escalates into a brawl requiring police intervention.

What do these young women and their friends have in common? All are caught up in the whirlwind of relational aggression, wounded by the words and actions of another girl. Even Erika and Shantal, who work to maintain "tough girl" stances at all costs, are scared, hurt, and insecure underneath.

Relational aggression (RA), also called female bullying, is the use of relationships, rather than fists, to hurt another. Rumors, name calling, cliques, shunning, and a variety of other behaviors are the weapons girls use against one another on an everyday basis in schools, sports, recreational activities, and even houses of worship. The increasing incidence of physical confrontations between girls, like Erika and Shantal's are often preceded by escalating relational aggression.

Most women can recall an incident of RA in their own past, but the seriousness of these behaviors is reaching new proportions, resulting in criminal charges, school shootings, and suicides. Why are today's girls so willing to be this cruel to one another?

When psychologist Mary Pipher wrote her bestselling book Reviving Ophelia in the mid-1990s, she suggested we need to "work together to build a culture that is less complicated and more nurturing, less violent and sexualized, and more growth producing." If anything, the world of adolescent girls is now more complicated, violent, and sexualized as well as less nurturing than when Dr. Pipher first proposed her agenda for change.

Today's young women are subtly influenced to interact in ways that reduce rather than enhance their underlying power to connect with one another. Bombarded with messages about their physical appearance at an early age, they are expected to dress provocatively while maintaining straight "A" averages and excelling at sports. They are labeled as mean "Queen Bees" but given no alternatives for more positive behaviors. Their bodies are reaching physical maturity earlier and earlier, yet their cognitive skills remain anchored in adolescence. Role models for today's teens are not powerful women who have succeeded because of their persistence and kindness to others, but rather superstar singers acting like sexy schoolgirls and movie stars firing machine guns or using martial arts on opponents while wearing skintight jumpsuits. No wonder young women find themselves in a state of extreme confusion, unsure of how to relate to either themselves or others.

The good news is that all across the country, mothers, girls, and others are finding ways to help adolescents feel more secure about their own abilities and safe in their relationships with others. Slowly, their efforts are changing the "girl poisoning" culture Mary Pipher first lamented nearly a decade ago, transforming behavior from cruel to kind.

Do all girls have the capacity to be kind? We believe girls are not inherently cruel, and that although behaviors such as jealousy, gossiping, and joining cliques may be normal in terms of what we expect, they are not what we have to accept. Based on our work with hundreds of young women in both our professional and personal lives, as well as extensive research, evaluation, and input from other experts on the subject, Charisse and I know that not only can girls be kind, they feel better about themselves when they are. We call this behavior confident kindness, because the ability to be caring and supportive of others is only meaningful if it comes from an inner sense of security and self-esteem.

It is our role as adults to guide young women to form more positive self-identities, which will in turn lead to more supportive relationships with others. That's what this book is all about. How can mothers, young girls, or any other concerned party overcome RA? In this book, input from four important sources is used to identify twelve key strategies that both girls and adults can use.

First, girls who have been involved in RA share their stories, either in their own words or via interviews. These young women offer advice on how to deal with RA and share ways in which they turned their lives around -- either on their own or with help from others.

A second source is the wisdom of mothers and other adults who have helped young women deal with RA. These include fathers, coaches, teachers, dance instructors, and religious education counselors. Again, the situations these adults faced with adolescent girls are shared, in their own words, along with the specific actions they took, which illustrate the strategies described.

A third source of information is experts, including Dr. Charisse Nixon and myself. Efforts are under way to develop and evaluate programs that specifically address individual, school, family, and community aspects of RA. In addition, many researchers and clinicians are actively studying and identifying key interventions that can put an end to female bullying.

Finally, several organizations that focus on improving the self-esteem of girls and helping them learn more positive ways of interacting are described. These include GENAustin, a "GirlPower" program in one high school; the Boys and Girls Clubs of America; and its premier program, Camp Ophelia; and the Ophelia Project and one of its sister chapters in Warren, Pennsylvania.

Of course, the experiences that feel most relevant to both Charisse and myself are the ones we have had as mothers of girls who are immersed in this culture of female aggression. We have seen our daughters caught up in the tumult of RA behaviors at various ages, but in keeping with the original message of Reviving Ophelia, we believe change is possible. Negative messages about "mean teens," which make for great press, end up stereotyping girls and creating an expectation that such behaviors are normal. The latter is particularly damaging because it perpetuates the notion that nothing can be done, because, after all, "girls will be girls."

It is our goal to focus on the strength and resiliency of young women rather than on their deficiencies. Girls have enormous relational abilities but need guidance to build those abilities into constructive assets. In this book, we will show that girls can -- and must -- be taught to capitalize on the strong, resourceful, positive, and powerful side that lives inside them. Anyone -- male, female, young, old, individual, or group -- can use these strategies to transform the culture of female aggression to one of confident kindness.

The twelve strategies are listed step-by-step for you to follow. The first, and perhaps most important, is to inform yourself and others. Although this may sound easy enough, there are many nuances of RA that affect today's girls. The four chapters devoted to this strategy will describe special situations such as the use of computers for aggression (cyber-RA) and socioeconomic differences and similarities in RA. This content is elaborated on by vignettes by girls and parents.

Strategies 2 and 3 are preventive actions you can use to develop a girl's anti-RA skills at a young age, grow her self-esteem, and equip her with positive relationship skills. Again, the real experiences of adults and girls will be shared to illustrate these principles.

The longest section of the book deals with what to do when RA occurs (Strategies 4 through 10). We begin with relatively mild incidents and progress to serious, sustained types of harassment and aggression. These strategies will help you intervene to end the aggression and hurt all girls experience when RA occurs. Not surprisingly, girls themselves have a lot to say about what helps and what doesn't; their suggestions are summarized in Strategy 10: Give Her a Tool Kit of Options.

Strategy 11 deals with changing the larger culture through individual and community programs targeted at RA. Profiles of key organizations are provided so you can replicate similar efforts in your own home and community. Finally, you will be guided through the steps needed to develop your own action plan.

The book ends with appendices, which are by no means comprehensive but which provide further information on resources, along with a self-assessment quiz on your RA quotient. Sources for further help are also identified.

We frequently mention middle school as the context for working with girls since this is a time when gender differences emerge in RA, but in reality the strategies apply to preschool through young adulthood. While our focus is girl vs. girl aggression, we acknowledge that boys can and do engage in RA, just in different contexts and less often.

Throughout the book, we have taken the liberty of changing names and details where we feel it is appropriate. Where girls specifically requested their names be used with their stories we did so, but all participants can be contacted through Cheryl Dellasega at

In the coming years, there will be increasing pressure to create environments that help young women feel safe. Strategies such as the ones we offer are an important first step in changing the culture to make it better for both adolescent girls and ourselves.

In a farewell letter to me, one thirteen-year-old summarized her feelings after attending a week-long camp specifically for middle-school girls: "I know now that there are other ways to act. For me, this means walking away when I'm upset or politely asking for more information about why the aggressor feels the way she does. Just knowing about relational aggression will help me be a different person in the next school year." It is our hope that every girl -- and adult -- can learn a better way to relate to others, to be confident and kind, and to feel better about herself in the process. This book is a how-to for accomplishing these goals.

-- Cheryl Dellasega, Ph.D.

Copyright ©2003 by Cheryl Dellasega, Ph.D., and Charisse Nixon, Ph.D.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Touchstone; Original edition (August 5, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743249879
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743249874
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.7 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #638,192 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Last 32 years=Mom
Last 25 years=Professor (Humanities and Women's Studies at Penn State University)
Last 12 years=Author of nonfiction self help books for women
Last 10 years=Founder & Director of Club and Camp Ophelia
Last 7 years=Published fiction author
Last 5 years=Oma/Omee/grandma
Last 2 years=Author of books for nurses
Last 1 year=fiance :)

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

178 of 191 people found the following review helpful By Keith Ammann on December 2, 2003
Format: Paperback
I picked this up after reading Rachel Simmons' "Odd Girl Out" (which was outstanding) and wanting to know how I could take action against social aggression as a teacher. This book did not supply the answers. First, it's aimed primarily at parents, with hardly any direct recommendations to teachers (in fact, it almost takes the view that teachers are not likely to be effective allies in the battle against social aggression). Second, it espouses a number of strategies that strike me as naive and counterproductive. In her book, Simmons took a much savvier tack, identifying approaches that are likely to convince picked-on kids that YOU JUST DON'T GET IT AT ALL. Dellasega and Nixon seem to me to overemphasize church communities as a retreat from aggression -- this strikes me as not only naive but dangerous, since so many social aggressors cloak their meanness behind a façade of impeccable niceness, and what better way to prove how nice you are than to belong to a church group? They also endorse an activity called "the PowHer Game," which sounded to me about as bright an idea as a Jumping to Conclusions Mat; to confirm my hunch, I ran it past my sister (whose own junior-high experiences prompted her interest in "Odd Girl Out" and, by extension, mine), and she said, yep, any kid would think that was hokey beyond belief, and not one would put an ounce of trust in it.
Somewhere, either in print or in someone's mind, there is a book that can help parents, teachers and kids resist social aggression effectively. I don't think this one is it.
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31 of 34 people found the following review helpful By Da Joed on December 31, 2003
Format: Paperback
As the dad of a teen girl who has gone through a lot of bullying I was nodding my head at the stories. Then I got to the chapter on Dads and Daughters and thought "At last!" This is the first concrete advice I've found on how to help my daughter. It's great to recognize that fathers play an important role too. One of my daughter's teachers read this, and is going to start a program at her school to stop relational aggression, so even more girls will benefit.
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15 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Laura D on May 15, 2012
Format: Paperback
When are psychologists going to wake up and stop stupidly believing that bullies are sad, insecure, doubtful people with low self-esteem? It's utter nonsense. Any of us who had been bullied as schoolgirls know that the top echelon clique of the most powerful, popular, and attractive people are the bullies. They don't have a problem with their self-esteem. They aren't worried about anyone picking on them. Rather, it is their arrogant sense of entitlement, encouraged by fawning teachers and admiring parents, which permits them to conduct bullying, manipulate entire populations of a community, and rule social hierarchies with iron fists. These are not disenfranchised, bitter, unhappy kids. They grow into pompous adults who conveniently "don't remember" being bullies, or dismiss it as "that's just a part of growing up."

Just out of curiosity, lately I've been reading up on books concerning the staggering bullying problem at schools and in workplaces. The reason my husband and I chose NOT to have children was to spare them the sort of misery which obviously cannot be rectified, as long as these quack psychologists continue to boo-hoo about the poor miserable bullies who feel so badly about themselves, as well as teachers -- and I have a lot of schoolteacher friends -- who to a woman insist "they don't see any bullying," or "it's all done under the rader; faculty can't catch it." (and funny, my male teacher friends HAVE sometimes admitted to witnessing and intervening on instances of bullying.)

Get off the stupid merry-go-round of feeling sorry for some little snot who drives another child or teenager to suicide.
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17 of 22 people found the following review helpful By X. zhou on December 31, 2003
Format: Paperback
This book on female bullying is an absolutely wonderful. "Sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can break your heart." That's what female bullying would hurt girls deeply. This book is worth reading and there are some great take-home points. I really enjoyed the book and found it helpful. Only if I read it earlier!
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By victoria baardsen on October 13, 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I am a Senior Account Manager, and I have worked for Staples Contract Inc, for three years. The first year was simplistic without much complication other than it was a long drive to and from work. I then transferred to the Retail Account Management program to work with Rewards customers with another team. I was introduced to Marlo Lathan who was to become my tormentor on the job for the next two years. She is clever, beautiful and controls the team with her emotional abuse. I did not understand what was happening to me until I saw the news about girls bullying girls and they were filming it! They were sent to jail for beating a classmate. They filmed the beating and uploaded it on YouTube. I could not understand how, or why they would do such a thing to another child. I wondered to myself "does this stop?" Do we graduate from High School and does it end? I concluded from work experience with Marlo that it does not end. I reported her to my supervisor, and to human resources without success. I talked with her directly, and again, it merely got worse. What is one to do? This book teaches you the tools to deal with the bully in your class at school, and the co-worker who just will not stop. I simply wish I had this tool when I was a kid so I could have better identified and managed the problem long before I as an adult and thinking... I'm crazy... now, that I've read this book I would recommend it to anyone.
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