Remember the movie Mean Girls? For generations of women, it was both funny and far too familiar.
Alas, it’s only within the last couple of decades that we’ve come to fully understand the emotional impact of female relational aggression. In recent years it’s been identified as “mean girls” behavior–after the comedic movie and the non-fiction book on which it was based. Yet boys engage in it, too. It’s a set of negative social skills that has been around for millenia–at least as long as little boys have taunted one another and stolen the lunch money of smaller kids.
Yes, relational aggression is also another word for bullying, although it tends to be more covert, nuanced even.
While it is gratifying to see this form of bullying recognized and begun to be called out, the reality is that many adults still don’t know how to recognize or address it in a constructive manner.
This means, of course, that children are still engaging in and suffering from the behaviors–and many victims carry the pain with them well into adulthood.
The methods of covert bullying are usually picked up by kids from peers and older kids who model it. The behaviors are not exclusive to schoolyard settings, and can occur in neighborhoods, church groups, and even homeschool playgroups–pretty much any place where children gather. Any child is a potential victim, but kids who are “different” in some discernible way are most apt to be singled out. This includes kids with disabilities, food allergies, and social skills challenges as well as gifted/2e children. (A 2006 Purdue study revealed that gifted kids experience a high rate of bullying in general.)
While researching the more general topic of bullying for a writing project, I ran across an insightful post by Dr. Michelle Borba on the topic of “mean girls” (lower case). Although written with girls in mind, much of the material translates well to understanding “mean boys,” too. She writes that:
…the goal of [relational aggression (RA)] is to damage the victim’s social standing or reputation by intentionally manipulating how others view her.
The methods of RA are always cold and calculated: deliberately isolating or excluding the victim, spreading vicious rumors or posting scandalous lies online, or creating situations to publicly humiliate her.
Make no mistake, relational aggression is every bit as damaging as physical abuse to a victim. So it should be no surprise that research also shows that RA is linked to low self-esteem, intense sadness, heightened anxiety, fear of other people, anger, eating disorders, social withdrawal and loneliness. It also lowers grades and academic performance and increases a girl’s risk for depression and in extreme cases, suicide. [emphasis mine]
Typical RA behavior may include name calling, making faces/eye rolling at the child who has been singled out for victimization, trying to get other children to “ignore” or ostracise another child for being “different,” and obvious social behaviors as well as more subtle, “behind-the-scenes” manipulation including gossip.
In addition to explaining the phenomena, Borba offers strategies to help parents nip RA in the bud. Note that children start using these tactics much earlier in grade school than psychologists once believed, which means her article is appropriate for parents of girls from preschool onward.
Parental understanding of RA is critical as many kids–especially small ones–may not realize the full impact of their behavior. However, many parents are in denial of RA as a means through which their child experiments with asserting social control. That denial (or general lack of awareness) can present problems for other adults in the parents’ social and familial circle who seek to address the negative behavior and correct it. Ultimately, a parent’s lack of willingness to address it can allow the child to think that RA is permissible. And the cycle begins again.
By educating ourselves and addressing it with our own kids (and sooner or later most kids engage in some of these behaviors), we may be able to ease the unnecessary intense suffering of girls and boys.
If you or your child(ren) have experienced or engaged in relational aggression, I’d love to hear how you dealt with it in the comments. I’m also curious about any books or other media that you may have used to explain the behavior to your kids. (Of course you may remain anonymous.)