Across the country, support programs have sprouted up to provide girls with tools to change their behaviors. With names like Owning Up, Girls Circle, the Ophelia Project, Salvaging Sisterhood, Full Esteem Ahead, these programs — provided by schools and community organizations — help girls realize the destructive power of cliques and learn how to form more positive, supportive relationships with their peers.

Girls meet with counselors in small groups to talk about their “issues”: body image, dealing with boys, eating, risky behaviors, feelings and attitudes about themselves. The discussion might start with something as simple as their hair or makeup, but soon leads to the topics of gossip and spreading rumors to make girls conscious of their behavior toward other girls. Girls learn team-building skills, how to diffuse their anger and manage conflict.

The Girls Circle program, founded in 1997 by Beth Hossfeld and Giovanna Taormina, is a program for girls ages 9 to 18. Their program, now used at more than 1,000 sites across the country, leads girls through a series of 12 activities that help them “move beyond cliques and toward empowered sisterhood.” The founders believe that girls are by nature relational beings and that healthy relationships are central to their emotional growth. The program challenges the notion that some girls are inherently “mean girls.” Through creative activities and guided discussions, the program helps girls recognize their strengths, provides them with a place for safe relationships and helps them “get to that sisterhood that has helped girls through the ages.”

“Girls tend naturally to engage in indirect relationships,” says Beth Hossfeld. “If something is bothering them about someone, they will go tell someone else rather than confront that person directly. In Girls Circle, we practice the approach of being direct in communication. We’ve found that girls can get distracted by a barrage of issues. When they have a place such as Girls Circle to discuss them, they can come up with their own solutions, feel more confident about themselves and can focus better on their schoolwork.”

Julia Taylor’s curriculum guides, Salvaging Sisterhood and Girls in Real Life Situations, contain discussion questions, role-play suggestions and creative activities that can be used by small groups in schools and community programs to foster better communication and positive relationships among girls. Taylor wrote these books because in her counseling work she realized, “How girls were treated at school by other girls affected their whole lives into adulthood. Relational aggression can make or break a girl’s childhood. When I work with girls, I emphasize the positive and how they can help each other.”

One of her group activities in Girls in Real Life Situations is called “The Boiling Point.” On a diagram that contains a thermometer and a clipboard, each girl writes down what makes her angry and what helps her cool off. The girls talk about what happens when a pot of pasta or rice boils or boils over. Then they compare how anger and tempers are similar to boiling water. They learn to recognize the signs that anger is beginning and how to control it, and share their personal boiling points and cooling off tips.