An 11-year-old girl sits on my couch with her head in
her hands. Tears stream down her face as she retells the latest “bad” day in a
string of what sounds to be many very bad days.
It all began when she decided to play with a different peer
group during recess. She was tired of walking around and talking. She wanted to
play a game. A big group of girls and boys were playing a complicated game of
tag. She wanted to try. As it turned out, this one simple choice would
be a huge social misstep. She was accused of turning her back on her friends.
“Oh, I guess you’re too good for us now.”
As much as the words stung, it was
the action that came later in the day that really hurt. There were eye rolls
accompanied by deep sighs when she smiled at her friends in class. During the
walk to music class, her two closest friends bumped her as they breezed ahead
of her and laughed while they walked away. At the end of the day, they huddled
together and shot her “mean” looks when she walked out of the room. In just a
few hours, this girl faced multiple rejections from her peers just because she
chose to play a game of tag.
When I discuss the impact of relational aggression with
parents, I am often met with a blank stare. On the one hand, many parents can’t
believe that these behaviors can possibly result from one small argument. On
the other hand, there is still a mentality that these things happen and it’s
all part of growing up.
The American Psychological Association describes relational
aggression as a type of behavior that is intended to hurt, harm or injure
another person using the relationship or “the threat of removal of the
relationship” as a means of harm. The tricky thing about relational aggression
is that it can be very difficult to spot.
Watch for these sneaky tactics that can cause major
Social exclusion (SHE can’t sit here.)
Friendship threats (I’m not your friend
anymore because …)
Threats (Unless you do [this], I won’t be your
Gossip and rumors
Unkind body language and verbal responses when a
child attempts to join a group (eye rolls, deep sighs, commands to leave the
Secret pacts among groups
Controlling other kids to create social
Manipulating adults (teachers, parents, etc.)
According to research complied by The Ophelia Project, 48 percent
of students are regularly exposed to relational aggression. The Ophelia Project
also reports that relational aggression has been linked with eating disorders,
substance abuse, social and psychological maladjustment, and suicidal ideation.
Watch for these signs and seek immediate help from a mental
health practitioner if you suspect that your child is a target of relational
The best way to combat relational aggression is to teach
social skills, empathy and compassion. Relational aggression has been observed
in children as young as age 3, although it peaks between the ages of 11 and 15.
Early intervention helps. Talk to your children about relational aggression.
Use role-play to help them understand how others feel when these behaviors
occur. Continue the conversation—this is not a one-time chat about being
To raise compassionate children, we need to talk early and often.