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.
What can school personnel do to combat the negative impact of relational aggression on perpetrators and their targets?
- Increase awareness among school staff so that they understand what relational aggression is and discuss ways to combat it. Consequences for relentless covert aggression will vary depending on school discipline procedures, the action, and the age of the girls. Consequences could include a referral to a counseling group or losing privileges.
- Observe children in the classroom, at lunch, in the hall, on the playground, and before and after school, noting students’ nonverbal reactions to peers. Ask yourself:
- Who is alone on the playground?
- Who is a group leader?
- How do her followers act toward others?
- Discuss relational aggression with your students to make sure they know that starting rumors, ridiculing others, and other forms of covert aggression are not acceptable.
- Reinforce student social interaction skills through the use of role-playing exercises, literature, writing assignments, and other means. Emphasize considering the feelings of others, developing listening skills, and exhibiting other character traits that are critical to forming lasting friendships.
- Help girls understand that conflicts are a natural occurrence in friendships and provide them with an opportunity to practice being supportive of one another. Encourage them to honestly resolve problems through open discussion and compromise.
- Believe the victim. Relational aggressive girls are skillful at concealing their bullying. Hence, many educators are blinded by the appearance of a model student who they feel would never engage in covert aggression.
- Understand that having at least one friend buffers a child from relationship aggression, so facilitating friendships between girls will help them cope with a relational aggressive child. Encourage girls to choose friends who are considerate and trustworthy, not exclusive or mean.
- Model respect and caring. Assist each girl in developing the belief that she is a capable person who has many strengths and who can stand up for herself by reinforcing these attitudes at every opportunity.
- Find assistance for the victim and perpetrator. Contact a parent and/or work with staff to foster their social and emotional development.
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.