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 emotional upheaval:
- 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 friend anymore.)
- Gossip and rumors
- Alliance building
- Public humiliation
- Unkind body language and verbal responses when a child attempts to join a group (eye rolls, deep sighs, commands to leave the joiner behind)
- Secret pacts among groups
- Controlling other kids to create social isolation
- 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 aggression:
- Appears anxious or depressed
- Frequent headaches, stomachaches or other physical complaints
- School refusal
- Social withdrawal
- Appears lonely or to lack friends
- Poor academic performance
- Refuses to participate in group activities or team sports
- Acts of self-harm
- Bullies others (even in the home)
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 nice.
To raise compassionate children, we need to talk early and often.