Relational aggression is a covert form of indirect aggression that often goes unnoticed by adults. Essentially, it is emotional bullying mostly among tween and teen girls.
The issue of bullying in schools has received much attention in recent years1. Although we have made great strides in our understanding of childhood aggression, gender differences in aggression have received little attention.
In general, physical and verbal aggression is significantly higher in boys than in girls.
Girls, as opposed to boys, are more likely to focus on relational issues and connection building in social situations. Girls are more likely to engage in relational aggression to harm peers because of their social concerns.
What is relational aggression
Relational aggression is behavior that involves deliberately hurting (or threatening to hurt) a person’s relationships or feelings of acceptance, friendship or group inclusion. Physical aggression, such as hitting or kicking, causes bodily harm, whereas relational aggression involves interpersonal manipulation. The goal is to undermine another child’s relationships with friends or to harm their reputation among peers. In popular literature, the perpetrators are sometimes called “mean girls,” even though not all of them show vicious acts.
Children become more aware of the social world as they grow. The need for social relationships increases as this awareness grows, especially for girls.
Relational aggression is a type of bullying since it consists of repeated acts directed at someone with the goal of harming them, but it may not be immediately apparent when it happens.
Sarcastic verbal comments, speaking in a cold tone of voice, ignoring, staring, leaving out, spreading rumors, “mean” facial expressions, and cyberbullying are all relational bullying examples. These types of mean girl behavior all manipulate or cause damage to relationships for the purpose of hurting the victim’s self-esteem or social status in a peer group.
Relational aggression examples
Here are some common examples of relational aggression behavior in children.
- Direct control by threatening to end a friendship unless a peer complies with a request.
- Social alienation by giving someone the silent treatment.
- Peer rejection from a group or damage in social standing by spreading nasty rumors or lies about them.
- Social exclusion by leaving out a peer from play or social groups.
- Social sabotage through social media.
Who engages in relational aggression
Contrary to previous studies that showed girls to be more likely than boys to exhibit this type of behavior, recent research reports that both boys and girls exhibit similar levels of social aggression2,3. Therefore, it is unclear whether one gender is more likely to engage in it than the other and more research is needed to determine this4.
However, according to research, when there is aggression, girls are more likely to choose social aggression over physical aggression5. Psychological distress is greater for girls when they experience this type of aggression. Such victimization has more negative social and emotional effects on girls than on boys. That is, even when boys and girls are exposed to the same amounts of social aggression, girls are more bothered by it and experience it as more hurtful6.
Furthermore, in adolescent girls, this form of aggression increases with age, but in boys it decreases7,8.
Relational aggression in child development
The development of relational aggression has been observed in young children as early as 3 years old9, whereas more sophisticated and covert aggression appear in middle childhood, late childhood, and adolescence10. It is also found in romantic relationships in adults11.
Relational victimization manifests itself differently with age, reflecting the social, cognitive, and emotional changes associated with maturing.
Aggression in preschool children usually involves face-to-face interactions, such as holding one’s hands over one’s ears as a sign of ignoring another or threatening to exclude someone from a party12.
In middle childhood, school-aged children tend to use more sophisticated peer maltreatment including both indirect (such as spreading rumors) and direct (such as excluding someone from a group) aggressive behavior.
Through adolescence, these forms of aggression become more subtle and complex. As opposite-sex friendships and romantic relationships become more prominent during this developmental phase, new contexts for expression of relational victimization emerge. For example, stealing a friend’s boyfriend or telling the boyfriend lies to harm their romantic relationship to get revenge becomes a new form of relational aggression in this age group.
Research has found that there is a strong association between the style of parenting and children’s aggression13.
In studies, authoritarian parenting style, coercive disciplinary style, psychological control and lack of empathy are found to be associated with preschool children’s relationally hurtful behavior14.
Researchers notice that individual differences in temperament seem to be associated to aggression in children. They have found that children with difficult temperament tend to have aggressive tendencies and display less prosocial interactions15.
Although the exact mechanism is unclear, adults who were exposed to verbal aggression in the family during adolescence are more likely to show similar aggression to their romantic partners16.
A number of studies have also found that the school setting, including norms about behavior and climate, are highly correlated with students’ academic and behavioral outcomes. The low involvement of teachers in relational conflicts could send the signal that relationally aggressive behaviors in adolescents are normal and are temporary17. As a result middle schoolers believe they can engage in such behavior without repercussion.
Negative effects on victims of relational aggression
Studies find that difficulties in psychosocial adjustment caused by relational aggression are as widespread and long-lasting as those caused by physical aggression18.
Relational aggressive behaviors can affect the victim’s social, academic, and psychological well-being19. The victims of such bullying behavior tend to suffer from anxiety, lack of self-esteem and depression20, which, is associated with suicidal ideations.
Additionally, children who are frequently the targets of social aggression are more likely to be rejected by their peers. Many chronic victims tend to view themselves as the cause of maltreatment by others, thereby perpetuating their low self-esteem, difficulty adjusting to life and increases in victimization.
It seems that girls are more likely to suffer from social and emotional maladjustment as consequences of victimization.
Negative effects on relational aggressors
Scientists have found that the aggressors may also suffer negative consequences of their action. Although the cause-and-effects have not been clearly identified, as in many studies on child development, distinct associations have been found.
Relationally aggressive children are significantly more socially and emotionally maladjusted than their non-relationally aggressive peers21. These children tend to exhibit less prosocial behaviors, and are more disliked.
Highly aggressive children tend to be made up of rejected and controversial students22. Such students suffer from social maladjustment, such as depression, loneliness and social isolation. Their existing peer relationship is generally unsatisfactory for them.
One of the most striking findings is that relationally aggressive people are correlated positively with psychological disorders such as border personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder23.
How to cope with relational attacks
Being relationally bullied can be a traumatic experience. When a girl feels close to her friend, she is more hurt by the aggression.
How should children cope
Although girls are more affected by relational aggression, studies have found that some girls actually become closer to the perpetrator after the incident. Studies also show that seeking social support is the most effective way for girls to resolve conflicts within a friendship while maintaining the friendship24.
However, for teens whose conflicts are malicious and cannot be resolved by themselves, they should seek help from parents, teachers or counselors.
How can parents help
Bullying is a serious matter. Whether it’s physical, relational or virtual, bullying is linked to depression and suicidal ideation25. Contact the school for help to stop such behavior.
In addition, it is vital that parents show support and become part of the child’s safety network. Adopting a warm and responsive parenting style is always good for children regardless. But a strong parent-child relationship is particularly beneficial in this situation because it can buffer the harmful effects of bullying26.
We should also watch for changes in behavior in our kids so that problems are caught early. If your child is having school avoidance problem or other types of concerning behavior, seek professional help immediately.
Final Thoughts on Relational Aggression
Presently, there are no empirically proven treatment programs that specifically target relational aggression in children. Although a number of school-based prevention and intervention programs have been created, researchers have found that they still don’t meet the efficacy criteria27. More systematical research about social aggression in girls is needed.
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