Learning to recognize relational aggression can also help girls develop new, healthy friendships.(Getty Images)
A 9-year-old girl is confused by the behavior of her friends. She fears that they don’t want to be her friends anymore, but she’s confused by the mixed messages she’s getting. They invite her to sit at their lunch table, but then they don’t talk to her or make eye contact with her. If she talks, they fall silent and roll their eyes. They tease her in front of classmates at recess, but they are quick to apologize before they run off. They make weekend plans in front of her, but her mom never gets a call to schedule the plans. Some days she feels invisible, but they include her just enough to keep her interested.
Many girls struggle to understand this “tricky” behavior, as they come to think of it, and for good reason. It’s difficult to walk away from a friendship, especially when a friend shows just enough interest to make another girl feel like there’s hope.
Relational aggression among girls isn’t a new concept, but it is trickling down to younger grades. One report on more than 11,000 students in grades 3 through 8 found that 41 to 48 percent of girls reported exposure to relational victimization during a 30-day period. Twenty percent of girls also reported being victimized by mean tricks intended to scare them. The most common type of relational victimization reported was being lied about so that others wouldn’t like them, while mean teasing, verbal threats and mean tricks were also high on the list of overt relational aggression among this age group.
To help girls learn to navigate these difficult situations, it’s important to understand what they’re dealing with on any given day.
It starts younger than you think.
While the report noted that girls in grades 5 through 8 experienced higher rates of relational aggression than girls in grades 3 and 4, it does show that this behavior is trickling down to younger grades. In fact, one study found that relational aggression even occurs among preschool students.
At the preschool level, relational aggression is likely to come in the form of repeated threats about what another girl needs to do to maintain a friendship. On the surface, this doesn’t sound like much, and it likely occurs due to a lack of friendship-making skills, underdeveloped social interaction skills or previous peer rejection resulting in low self-esteem. If these threats occur daily (and even multiple times a day), the child crosses the line from a social skills error to bullying in a covert, relational way.
Girls don’t always know when they’ve crossed the line.
Relational aggression is a covert form of bullying that includes a pattern of behavior intended to harm someone by damaging her reputation or manipulating her relationships with others. It often goes unnoticed because it is hidden and secretive by nature.
Relational aggression can include the following:
- Social exclusion
- Rumors and gossip
- Breaking confidences or sharing secrets
- Recruiting others to dislike someone
- Ostracizing others
- Leaving hurtful notes in lockers, backpacks or desks
- Cyberbullying via text, email, video chat and social media
- Intimidating others
- Using threats to establish friendship
- Pressuring other girls to join in
Peer pressure and maintaining social status are two big reasons that girls engage in this behavior with their peer groups, and the behavior isn’t always transparent. Girls don’t always realize when they’ve crossed the line from a mean joke to bullying and victimization.
Educating girls about understanding the lines between social errors and emotionally harming a peer is crucial. This isn’t a one-time conversation. It helps to be specific about the behaviors that can and do harm other girls and to talk about ways to handle conflict among girls without engaging in these behaviors.
Girls don’t come forward for a variety of reasons.
Girls often wait to seek help with relational aggression. Many girls tell me they try to handle it independently as much as possible. Due to the secretive nature of the behavior, they aren’t always certain that a teacher can or will help with the problem. As one third grade girl told me, “They make fun of my clothes a lot, but that’s not really bullying. Teachers can’t help with that.”
Other reasons girls don’t seek help can include:
- Feeling humiliated
- Fear the behavior will get worse
- Unsure how to get help
- Fear of disappointing parents, teachers or other important adults in their lives
- Unwilling to get the aggressors in trouble
- Worry that telling will affect their other friendships
You can help your daughter learn how and when to get help by establishing a safe person to talk to at school, talking about what relational aggression means and why asking for help actually helps both the victim and the aggressor, and establishing regular conversation times where the two of you can talk about these tough topics without interruption.
Cyberbullying affects little kids, too.
While middle school students often seek my help when dealing with relational aggression on apps like Instagram, Snapchat and Houseparty, younger kids encounter cyberbullying via text, messenger apps and email. Very young children have access to phones and tablets these days, and many children use text, iMessage, FaceTime and email to communicate outside of school.
While parental controls and apps like Bark are great for monitoring everything from texts and emails to YouTube and social networking sites, nothing beats talking to your daughter about what cyberbullying looks like, where it can occur and what to do if she encounters it. Engage your kids in these important conversations by asking questions and listening to the answers instead of lecturing. “Have you or your friends heard of any cyberbullying?” is a great way to open the door to this conversation without intimidating your child.
Being an “upstander” takes practice.
When I speak to kids during school assemblies, one thing I hear over and over again is that kids want to help each other out, but they don’t know what to do. I teach kids and teens to act as “upstanders.” Instead of trying to stand up to the bully, I have them practice helping the victim by taking the following steps:
- Make eye contact and smile.
- Stand next to the victim.
- Ask the victim to join you somewhere else.
Role play is a great way to help kids practice these steps in a safe environment. When kids help other kids, in person and online, relational aggression decreases.
Relational aggression has significant consequences.
Girls can experience low self-esteem, symptoms of anxiety and depression, fear of attending school, or refuse to go to school, and pervasive loneliness as a result of relational aggression. In some cases, girls might have suicidal thoughts. If you suspect that your daughter is subject to relational aggression, get help right away. Here’s what you can do:
- Take screenshots of any instances of cyberbullying.
- Save any notes written by other kids.
- Document everything your daughter tells you.
- Contact the school immediately to seek assistance.
- Schedule an evaluation with a licensed mental health practitioner who specializes in children and teens.
You know your daughter best. If you notice changes in eating and sleeping habits, social isolation, that she’s refusing to participate in normal daily activities, having frequent headaches or stomachaches, or exhibiting other behavioral or physical changes that can’t be explained, get professional help.
Getting help for your daughter gives her the tools to process and cope with her feelings, establish new and healthy friendships, and learn to assert herself in difficult social situations.
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Katie Hurley, Contributor
Katie Hurley, LCSW is a child and adolescent psychotherapist, parenting expert and writer. She … Read moreKatie Hurley, LCSW is a child and adolescent psychotherapist, parenting expert and writer. She has been a contributor to U.S. News since 2017. Hurley is the founder of “Girls Can!” empowerment groups for girls ages 5 to 11. She is the author of “No More Mean Girls” and “The Happy Kid Handbook,” and her work can be found in The Washington Post, PBS Parents and Psychology Today, among other places. She practices psychotherapy in the South Bay area of Los Angeles and earned her BA in psychology and women’s studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She splits her time between Los Angeles and coastal Connecticut with her husband and two children.
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