There is a reason why girls in middle school get enmeshed in drama: there are a lot of payoffs. Yes, that’s right, girls receive goodies for being involved in drama and it contributes to keeping them stuck. A group of girls in 6th-8th grade at a recent weekend retreat I facilitated shared the reasons being their involvement, and I think you might be surprised by their insights.
Drama looks like spreading rumors and gossip, excluding people, feeling in the middle of friend’s conflicts, teasing or making fun of peers, losing a good friend or your group of friends, or betraying a friend’s trust. These experiences elicit feelings of sadness, hurt, stress, tension, confusion, guilt, anger, jealousy, worry, fear, anxiety, depression, paranoia, and loneliness. Girls ruminate constantly about their status with friends: am I in or out, cool or awkward, noticed or invisible, accepted or rejected, included or alone. Many worry at nighttime about what’s going to play out the next day. There are benefits to all of this drama, and it keeps girls stuck in the pattern.
The main payoff is a sense of belonging; it becomes one of the main ways girls connect. If you are in the middle of creating a round of gossip, you feel included, noticed, and important. You are a part of something even if it’s through negative means. Spreading a rumor or contributing some gossip is a way that some girls include themselves into more popular groups; it’s their ticket for entry.
Girls also want to be in the loop of the relentless, 24/7 sagas that are played out with peers. Being involved in drama is one way to keep up with the latest goings on.
People in the thick of drama tend to get the most attention and notoriety at school, and the “Queen Bees” who dictate a lot of the drama get a tremendous sense of power and control from it. It can also raise your status and level of popularity, which becomes another huge impetus for keeping the drama going.
Girls conditioned to be “good girls” are not supposed to have feelings of anger or jealousy, nor are they allowed to have or handle conflicts directly with friends. Their feelings and fights get shoved down below the surface and then tend to resurface as passive-aggressive behaviors or drama. It becomes a way to get revenge on people when they feel hurt or angry.
After sitting in intimate circles of girls at my retreats, camps, and school programs for over 25 years, I can tell you without a doubt that despite these payoffs, drama leaves girls feeling empty and wanting. What they really desire is true friends that don’t gossip or talk about them behind their backs, who are kind to all and inclusive, who have their back, and that they can count on through thick and thin.
Being aware of the costs to them of being in drama creates the motivation to do it different. Popularity, revenge, fitting in, and inappropriate power are fleeting, superficial, and unfulfilling because they don’t bring real closeness and intimacy. Girls need safe circles like my camps to talk about these issues and their feelings, and to learn the means to connect in healthier ways.