Aggression or bullying can be defined as any action that inflicts physical or mental harm upon another person. Girls usually differ from boys in the type of aggressive behavior they exhibit. While boys tend to inflict bodily pain, girls most often, though not exclusively, engage in covert or relational aggression. Girls tend to value intimate relationships with girls, while boys usually form social bonds through group activities. Aggressive girls often gain power by withholding their friendship or by sabotaging the relationships of others.
Relational aggression is calculated manipulation to injure or to control another child’s ability to maintain rapport with peers. For example, a relational aggressive girl may insist that her friends ignore a particular child, exclude her from their group, form secret pacts to humiliate the child, call her names, and/or spread rumors about her.
Examples of manipulation include, “If you don’t play this game, I’ll tell Sara that you called her stupid,” or “You have to do what I say, or I won’t play with you.” Children in preschool have been observed excluding peers by saying, “Don’t let her play,” or using retaliation, “She was mean to me yesterday, so she can’t be our friend.” In older girls, the gossip can be more vicious, for example, “I saw her cheating.”
Though often subtle, nonverbal communication of an aggressive girl is unmistakable. For example, she may roll her eyes, glare, ignore, turn away, point, or pass notes to a friend concerning the rejected child.
In 1995, Crick and Grotpeter found that members of groups run by aggressive girls appeared to be caring and helpful toward each other. However, they also observed a higher level of intimacy and secret sharing in these groups. This closeness puts followers at risk because the aggressive child is privy to personal information that she can disclose. They also noted a higher level of exclusivity in groups run by relational aggressive girls. In other words, the followers usually have few other friends to turn to if they are rejected by the aggressive child, hence they continued to conform for fear of being isolated. They found a higher level of aggression within these groups.
Girls often feel pressured to be compliant and not show negative emotions. When they cannot assert their true feelings directly, resentment lingers and their anger manifests itself indirectly. Excessive relational aggressiveness can become a habit that can cause a lifetime of problematic relationships. Therefore, a girl who exhibits this behavior needs adult intervention and guidance. It should be stressed that these girls often have leadership ability, but they need assistance to channel it in a positive direction.
Relational aggression in girls has a negative affect on school climate and culture, as well as on the perpetrators and their victims. According to Crick, relational aggressive girls are disliked more than most children their age. They exhibited adjustment problems and reported higher levels of loneliness and depression. These girls often have difficulty creating and sustaining social and personal bonds. Ridiculed children have adjustment difficulties, as well. The rejection and hurt they feel can last a lifetime. They are more likely than peers to be submissive, have low grades, drop out of school, engage in delinquent behavior, experience depression, and entertain suicidal thoughts.
Leah Davies received her Master’s Degree from the Department of Counseling and Counseling Psychology, Auburn University. She has been dedicated to the well-being of children for over 44 years as a certified teacher, counselor, prevention specialist, parent, and grandparent. Her professional experience includes teaching, counseling, consulting, instructing at Auburn University, and directing educational and prevention services at a mental health agency.