In the Trenches: Dominant Girls

In the Trenches

by Bob Ditter


Last summer, we had a group of thirteen-year-old girls who had the hardest
time getting along with one another. Part of the problem was what we've come
to call a "Queen Bee" — a strong, dominating girl who threatened
and bullied the other girls and encouraged them to be mean and hurtful to one
another. It was discouraging to try to talk with the girls. Normally great
talkers, they seemed to clam up and deny that any problem existed. It was frustrating
to know what to do. Any ideas? Also, the more we confronted the "Queen
Bee," the more she denied her actions and the more covert she became.

— Stymied in the Sticks

Dear Stymied,

The challenge you describe is one that many camp directors face. It is
not uncommon for a strong girl or small group of strong girls to dominate
a group to the point where the other girls feel threatened or uncomfortable.
Extreme examples of this phenomenon can result in great physical or,
more frequently, emotional harm to some girls at the bottom of the "pecking order," so
it is wise to intervene. Most counselors are also stymied by this behavior
and have relatively little success in confronting the behavior of the dominant
girl or girls. Counselors in this position will need your help to turn the
situation around.

I am not at all surprised that the girls "clammed up" when
you met with them as a group. I am also not surprised that the dominant
girl denied the cruelty of her actions. First of all, although most girls
like to talk, since they usually experience it as an opportunity that
brings about clarity, resolution, and greater closeness, they do not
like to admit when their behavior is hurtful to others. Moreover, girls
that are being targeted will usually not publicly accuse or "point
the finger" at other girls for fear of reprisals that will occur
when you and the other adults are not looking. As you said, the more
you confront the dominant girl about her hurtful behavior, the more underground
she will be with her behavior. Let me outline an approach that seems
to offer greater success.

  1. Approach the girl who is dominating the others, but do not criticize
    her. Instead, affirm her power ("I can see that you are a leader.
    I know, because the other girls listen to you.") To do this, you
    will have to overcome your own anger or judgment about her or what
    she has been doing to the others! To approach her in an angry or judgmental
    way will simply drive her to become more devious and sneaky in the
    ways she dominates others.

  2. Tell this strong, dominant girl that she always has a choice about
    how she uses her power and goes about being a leader. She can do it
    in negative ways by intimidating others, or she can do it in positive
    ways, by taking on some responsibility or leadership role that will
    use her talent or ability. (See more about this under tip number 6.)
    Tell her that you would like to help her be the strong leader that
    she is in ways the other girls will admire and respect. Tell her that
    you know that is what she wants — to be respected by the other
    girls — and that you would like to help her think of other ways
    she can do this.

  3. At the same time, make it clear that being mean and threatening
    or putting others down is not acceptable. Clarify that you know that
    she may not intend to be mean or hurt others, but that this is in fact
    what has happened. You would like her to be the strong girl she is
    in ways that don't hurt others.

  4. Approach the girl(s) who is(are) being victimized. If it is one
    girl, see what you can do to link her up with another friend. Experience
    tells us that girls always do better when they have at least one other
    friend with whom to take refuge. Be careful that this friend is not
    someone who tries to "protect" her from the dominate girl,
    as this will only antagonize the dominant girl(s). She simply needs
    someone she can hang out with.

  5. In a separate conversation, gather together the girls who are the "silent
    majority" — the girls in the middle, who are either going
    along with what the dominant girl is dictating or who steer clear to
    keep from becoming targets themselves. See if they can be strengthened
    as a group so they can more successfully resist the orders of the dominant
    girl(s) to be mean. To do this, you may wish to program them so they
    are together as a group without the victim and without the dominant
    girl(s) for a day or part of a day. Do some type of challenge activity
    or initiative activity where the girls can strengthen their bonds.
    End the activity with a discussion about being strong, supporting one
    another, and having a "code of conduct" where they agree
    not to go along with behavior that is mean to other girls. "Girls'
    Circle" and "Courage Beads" — both of which can
    be found in my new staff training manual, Kick It Up a Notch! Staff
    Training from Soup to Nuts and Bolts — are two great activities
    you can use for this, although a more physical challenge activity will
    work as well. It is imperative, however, that you debrief the girls
    after the activity!

  6. Go back to the dominant girl and brainstorm ways that she can take
    on some true responsibility or leadership role, either in her cabin
    or group or in the greater camp community. This might be leading a
    special service, doing a skit on "Play Night," helping organize
    or run something in the group, etc. Involve another counselor or senior
    staff member if you feel this would be helpful. Determine an adult
    role model this girl admires who might have some positive influence
    on her behavior.

The point is to honor the strength in this girl rather than vilify
it, and channel her attempts at being powerful into something that is
productive and positive. Don't be surprised, however, if she balks at
trying on a leadership role. Very often dominant girls do not feel powerful
unless they are dominating a group, which is part of the problem. Helping
her feel powerful and gain respect in more legitimate, acceptable ways
will go a long way toward not only to correcting the problem at camp,
but in permanently enhancing her self-esteem.

Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing
in child, adolescent, and family therapy. He supervises content for and can be reached via e-mail at or
by fax at 617-572-3373. "In the Trenches" is sponsored by
American Income Life Insurance.

Originally published
in the 2004 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.