Bullying and Relational Aggression

Relational aggression (RA), also called in direct bullying, is the use of relationships, rather than fists, to hurt another.  The term relational aggression was coined by researcher Nicki Crick from the University of Minnesota.  RA is quieter, more insidious, and harder to detect than other forms of aggression such as physical violence.  Existing on a continuum, RA includes starting rumors, spreading gossip, teasing, creating or joining cliques, deliberately excluding someone else, and many of the other stereo typical behaviors associated with girls (and women).  However, importantly research shows that these behaviors are not reserved for females alone and in fact, recent research show that boys and girls (grade 3 through 8) engage in similar amounts of relationally aggressive behavior.  Given the nature of the subtle and covert behavior, unfortunately, RA is often missed by adults. And as we all know, if undetected, RA can escalate to an ongoing emotional drama, carrying negative side effect that lasts for days, weeks, and even years.

The process of using relationships to hurt another involves an aggressor (the bully or tormentor), a victim (the target), and often one or more by standers or kids in the middle (KIM).  It is not at all unusual for a child who has been victimized to retaliate by becoming aggressive to another child or for a child to play all three roles in different types of relationships.  To better understand the dynamics of RA, it is important for both children and adults to recognize the behaviors as well as the motivating factors.

Ironically, all children who engage in this dynamic are experiencing some underlying fear and insecurity.  The aggressor may be worried about her ability to remain “on top,” so she uses manipulation and control of others to avoid having her own flaws exposed.  The victim (or target) often lacks the confidence to stand up for herself and may accept harassment because inside she feels it is deserved or true. Additionally, the child’s fears related to bullying may be so intense, that she or he feels paralyzed, and as a result, does nothing. Kids in the middle are also afraid and lack the self-esteem to take a stand; often they may join in the aggression either passively or overtly to avoid being targeted themselves.  In sum, fear grips each child and keeps him or her involved in a destructive cycle of aggression.

Most of us can recall an incident of RA in our own past, but the seriousness of these behaviors is reaching new proportions, resulting in criminal charges, school shootings and suicides.  Why are today’s children 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 adolescents today is more complicated, violent, and sexualized as well as less nurturing.

Teenage Girls

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.

A recent report from the Families and Work Institute asked 1,001 adolescents in the fifth through twelfth grades the following question:  “If you could make one change that would help stop the violence that young people experience today, what would that change be?”  Interestingly, the majority of young people talked about emotional violence; relational aggression is a type of emotional violence.

The damage occurs because RA prevents girls from aligning with one another during an important time in their psychosocial development and instead turns them into adversaries.  This way of interacting, through relationships that are a source of harassment rather than happiness, can deprive girls of a valuable support system:  her peers.

Research on RA has shown that

  • Relationally aggressive behavior is evident in all age groups from preschool through adulthood.
  • Both boys and girls engage in relationally aggressive behavior from elementary school onward.
  • For students in grades three through six, relational aggression is a stronger predictor of future social maladjustment than overt physical aggression.
  • Girls are more likely to use RA within their own friendship circles, in comparison to boys, who tend to aggress outside their friendship circles.
  • Girls are more likely to approve of and use relational aggression; boys are more likely to approve of and use physical aggression.
  • Relational aggression may be as strong a risk factor for future delinquency, crime, and substance abuse as physical aggression.
  • Children and adolescents involved with RA have a higher incidence of serious mental health problems such as depression, loneliness, anxiety, suicidal ideation, alienation, emotional distress, and isolation.
  • At the college level, prior experience with RA has been associated with bulimic symptoms.
  • Older adolescents with a well-formed identity (young women who are goal-directed) are less likely to be relationally aggressive.
  • Older adolescents with a well-developed moral identity (young women who know their values and act consistently with them) are less likely to be relationally aggressive.
  • Studies show that RA is linked to physical violence.
  • The Families and Work Institute report highlights that adolescents want to see changes in their culture more than in their parents or schools.  They report feeling peer and social pressure to follow and conform as a way to protect themselves.

Children and adolescents need to be educated about RA.  As an adult, you can provide key information.  Use the words relational aggression, but make sure the child understands what that term means–bullying, aggression, meanness, and other hurtful behaviors.  Spell out what RA is, how it hurts children, who is usually involved, and why it happens, and assure the child that this behavior can be changed  Start talking about relational aggression early on–preschool is when these behaviors begin to surface and finally, share stories with children so that kids know that they are not alone.

Used with permission from the book Girl Wars: 12 Strategies That Will End Female Bullying by Cheryl Dellasega, Ph.D. and Charisse Nixon, Ph.D., (Fireside).