"I had cat scratches on my
wrist one day, and a girl started a rumor that I was suicidal. So a lot of
people wouldn't talk to me, or they would just tell me to kill myself."
Taylor* was in middle school, but that wasn't the beginning of her bullying story. As far back as first grade (pictured right), there
were things she was teased about. She was a pale-skinned redhead whose clothes weren't new and
always seemed a little small — more like the stuff younger kids were wearing. She stood out. Her parents were working, but struggling to make ends meet. Kids started
teasing Taylor. They refused to play with her.
By middle school, things had escalated. One of Taylor's friends stole her journal
and passed it around school. Gossip started flying as kids shared what Taylor
had written. Some of the things the kids shared were true, some completely made
up. Attempts by teachers and administrators to intervene were largely
unsuccessful. By the time Taylor hit high school,
she was in therapy and down to one shaky friendship. At age 18, Taylor still works hard to deal with social anxiety and depression.
Bullying wasn't confined to school. Church, summer camp, the bus: anywhere children gathered in groups, Taylor was vulnerable.
Dr. Jamie Ostrov is director of the Social Development Laboratory at the
University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Taylor's story is familiar to him — it's a perfect example of relational aggression.
"This is behavior
that is intended to hurt, harm or injure another person and uses the
relationship or the threat of the removal of the relationship as the means of
harm," says Ostrov. "It includes social exclusion, friendship withdrawal threats, giving the silent treatment and spreading
malicious secrets, lies or gossip."
And just because school is out doesn't mean the coast is clear. Relational aggression occurs at camp and can be particularly difficult for kids to deal with at sleep-away camp. "In summer camp, exclusion is often the most painful kind of bullying," says Dr. Joel D. Haber, who has covered bullying for the American Camp Association. "When campers experience exclusion, their summer is compromised because their social network is damaged."
You can't just come in and say, 'You all have to be nice.' Kids want to have exclusivity. They want to have a best friend. They don't want to have to play with everybody. Forcing them to all get along doesn't work.
And while there are often anti-bullying programs in place, Dr. Ostrov says that not all of them are effective. "Children are typically redirected or maybe there's a time out or something when there's physical aggression often because it's viewed as a safety concern," says Ostrov. "But it's not always the case that relational aggression leads to the same kind of sanction. I'm not necessarily arguing that sanctions be imposed, but I am arguing that parents and teachers need to respond in an appropriate way when they witness these behaviors and change the reinforcers in the environment."
Ostrov points out that you can't change the fact that hierarchies exist among kids. What can be changed is the climate. "Sending a clear message to the kids that various forms of aggressive behavior are not tolerated in the classroom by praising when they engage in inclusive behavior, we see decreases in aggressive behavior. You can't just come in and say, 'You all have to be nice.' Or you can't tell them, 'You can't say that kid can't play.' Kids don't like that. They want to have their own friends. They want to have exclusivity. They want to have a best friend. They don't want to have to play with everybody. Forcing them to all get along doesn't work."
Instead Ostrov advocates teaching kids by praising particular behavior. "Labeling the behavior and saying, 'I really like how you did such and such' works. It doesn't take very long for the classroom to shift and the aggression and victimization to drop. The trick then is to do this enough over time, and having teachers and parents doing it enough, then the kids start to praise one another. It helps the victims and it teaches the aggressors that there are other ways to increase their status without hurting others."
While programs like Dr. Ostrov's go directly into schools, there are things parents can do that can head off bullying before it starts:
1. IS IT BULLYING? It's important to note that not all incidents of exclusion or teasing are relational aggression. Understanding where your child and his peers are developmentally helps to figure out when a behavior is problematic and needs serious attention or intervention aside from talking things through. Books like the series by Louise Bates Ames give a detailed breakdown of what to expect through each year of your child's life up to age 12.
2. WHAT CAN YOU DO AT HOME? Just as Dr. Ostrov and his team go into classrooms seeking to change the culture, encourage positive social exchanges and decrease aggression, you can make changes to the culture in your home. Consider the media your child is exposed to and make time to sit with little ones to talk over the lessons or morals of the stories she's watching. Research shows that kids don't always assimilate the moral of educational television programs and may actually pick up more of the negative behaviors they see. Observe the relationship between siblings and address signs of aggressive or manipulative behavior. While some of this is developmentally appropriate and common among siblings, parents can still step in and guide kids toward more respectful and empathetic behavior.
3. ARE YOU A BULLY? Be conscious of what you're modeling. Kids of all ages learn from what they see in the people closest to them, especially parents. While none of us is perfect, as a parent you have an amazing opportunity to teach by example. It's a powerful position, and it's helpful to reflect from time to time on what you're modeling for your kids in how you relate to your spouse, friends, family and even how you take care of yourself.
4. SHARE Teaching kids compassion is a key part of Dr. Ostrov's work. As a parent, it's easy to feel the heartbreak in Taylor's situation as kids teased her and passed around her private journal. Or remember how it felt to be ignored and excluded by kids at summer camp. But kids don't always have that empathetic reaction in the moment. It comes with practice. Think of it as building a muscle. Conversations in the car or around the dinner table are prime times to introduce this topic. Compare real-life examples with stories from television or books. Share your experiences.
Taylor (pictured left) just graduated high school and is considering pursuing a career in therapy. She's recognized that learning to be more outgoing has helped her get through her early difficulties and really takes pride in surrounding herself with a solid group of friends. "It's interesting how much other people can make you think about yourself." She's learned that this can be good or bad. Taylor has learned some positive things about herself and the nature of friendships through her experience, but she hasn't come through unscathed.
"Relational aggression" may be a new term for some of us, but the behaviors associated are all too familiar. Maybe having a framework for understanding the problem will lead to some good solutions so kids don't have to suffer with humiliation, isolation and ongoing negative effects.
*Taylor's last name and hometown are excluded from the article for privacy.