Also known as “social bullying,” this type of behavior can be particularly damaging.
When you think of a child being bullied, you might envision a gang of boys surrounding a peer, taunting, teasing or even pushing and shoving – the Hollywood version.
But what about when a group of girls band together and purposefully ignore another girl? Or post an embarrassing photo of her on social media? This is called relational aggression, or social bullying, and can have long-lasting consequences.
Relational aggression “is a type of bullying that’s intended to harm others by damaging their relationships and social standing,” says Dr. Julian Lagoy, a psychiatrist at Mindpath Health. This has its own Hollywood depiction, he says. It’s the movie “Mean Girls.”
In fact, the term “mean girls” was coined to reflect this very type of aggression, says Jessica Griffin, executive director of the Child Trauma Training Center at the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School.
Griffin describes it as “the exclusion of others, the silent treatment, gossiping or spreading malicious secrets or lies about someone, or manipulating the relationship in order to harm the other person.”
“Even though children aren’t being physically hurt, the impact of aggression can be particularly harmful,” she says.
Relational Aggression is Common
Of course, physical bullying is still prevalent, but relational aggression is also widespread.
Almost one in five girls ages 12 to 18 said they have been the subject of rumors, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Nearly one in 10 said they’ve been purposefully left out of activities. And a 2011 survey of students in grades 3-8 found that as many as 48% of girls and 42% of boys reported experiencing social bullying in the past 30 days.
Even young children can demonstrate this type of aggression, Griffin says, with statements like, “You can’t come to my birthday party,” or, “I’m not your friend anymore.”
Because it is not as obvious as physical bullying, this behavior can easily be overlooked by teachers or parents, says Laurie Singer, a licensed family therapist and board-certified behavior analyst who practices in California.
“When children engage in relational aggression at a young age, they’re laying the groundwork for their socialization skills for the future,” she says. “The danger is that they’re significantly more likely to continue using this method through their teen and adult years.”
The Impact of Relational Aggression
Singer gives an example she says is common. In a group of girls, one notices that the others start to ignore her when she talks, perhaps rolling their eyes. The other girls then make plans outside of school without including her. She tries her best to fit in, only to continuously have her feelings hurt. The girl’s self-esteem drops, and her self-confidence decreases. She starts to think she’s the one with the problem and that’s why the other girls are shunning her.
According to Griffin, children subjected to relational aggression can experience a number of negative effects, including low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, a decline in academic performance and even thoughts of suicide.
Due to the impact of social media and the isolation caused by the pandemic, experts say there has been more focus on relational aggression recently. Singer says she is seeing more young women come into her practice with depression and self-injurious behavior.
“A common thread I see with these [women] is the impact of what their peers think and say about their social media posts,” Singer says.
What Parents Can Do
Lagoy says parents and teachers can play a major role in detection, watching for signs of depression, a lack of social skills, or difficulty with schoolwork. It’s important to recognize potential problems early and seek help when needed.
Mental health experts recommend some specific actions that parents can take to stop relational aggression, including:
Foster good communication. Communication is crucial when it comes to recognizing signs of a problem. A child might be having stomachaches or headaches at home and ask to skip school. At school, the child might make frequent trips to the nurse and want to go home. These can be signs of anxiety.
Pay attention to peer interaction. Make observations to determine if a child is being singled out and bullied. How is the child socializing? Do they have friends? Do they get involved in playground “drama?” By recognizing these warning signs, problems can be identified and help can be given earlier.
Empower your child. Give your child strategies that can empower them when they’re experiencing relational aggression. This could be helping them come up with statements such as, “When you ignore me or say mean things about me, that hurts my feelings and is not okay,” or, “I feel sad and upset when you won’t let me play with you guys.” It’s also beneficial to encourage your child to find other friendships when needed, Griffin says. “Parents and teachers can talk to kids about what the qualities are of a good friend or a healthy friendship or relationship,” she says.
Monitor internet and mobile use. Become familiar with parental control options for cell phones, tablets and other internet-connected devices. Know your child’s passwords and check in on their social media usage.
For parents who want to learn more, there are many resources available online. Here are a few:
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network provides information for parents on all types of bullying behavior and the traumatic stress children can experience.
OnlineSchools.org gives an overview of bullying, including social bullying, and ways that parents can prevent it from happening.
Choosing Therapy is a website with a section dedicated to information about relational aggression.
The PATHS program, which stands for Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies, is a resource parents can use to learn more about relational aggression. Schools can implement PATHS programs for grades PK-5.
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