Karin has taught middle and high school Health and has a master's degree in social work.
What Is Relational Aggression?
The 2004 comedy Mean Girls showcased an important social psychology principal: relational aggression. One of the major themes in this movie was bullying. Mean Girls highlighted the manner in which girls typically bully each other: gossiping, hurtful pranks, name-calling and put-downs.
Relational aggression is nonphysical aggression towards another with the purpose of bringing down their reputation or social status or heightening one's own social status. Because teenage girls are often in high social competition with each other, there has been a major focus on them and relational aggression. Relational aggressors are often seen as mean by others, but they're also described as powerful and having leadership qualities. This may be a large motivating factor in what encourages relational aggressors.
Relational aggression is seen mostly during the less-structured time at school: recess, gym, school bus rides, and lunch. This is when kids have more opportunities to interact and less adult supervision. Relational aggression can deteriorate the victim's self-esteem and confidence and cause a host of mental health problems such as eating disorders, anxiety, depression, and even harmful thoughts. Sometimes, it can cause children to attempt to avoid school.
While this lesson is focused primarily on relational aggression that occurs with girls and young women, it is important to note that boys and young men also experience or demonstrate relational aggression, and it is not limited to one gender or the other.
Examples of Relational Aggression
There are many different forms of relational aggression. We will look at several scenarios between eighth-graders Elle and Madison to get a better understanding of how relational aggression can manifest. Elle is the bully, and Madison is new to the school.
Let's first look at gossiping. Gossiping is talking about someone behind their back. Sometimes gossiping can contain true and hurtful facts about the victim, but gossip can also be in the form of rumors, untrue or fabricated information about a person.
Elle is jealous of Madison, who is the new girl in school. Madison excels at sports, has a laid-back personality, and has many guy friends. Elle told the varsity football's quarterback that Madison was cool, but that she had problems wetting the bed at night. This was a rumor completely fabricated by Elle to make Madison look bad and to make herself look more attractive. This rumor spread throughout the entire football team. When Madison heard the rumor through a friend, she was completely mortified and embarrassed.
Now let's look at put-downs. Gossiping may be more frequent than put-downs because it's a less direct way to hurt another person's reputation. Put-downs are direct assaults on another person. They can be attacks of another's behavior, relationships, character, appearance, etc.
Elle is the queen bee in one the most popular girl cliques in the eighth grade. She notices that newcomer to the clique Madison rarely wears makeup and dresses more casually than the others. In order to maintain the group's high status, Elle publicly announces that Madison needs to wear more makeup to be pretty. Madison is, of course, humiliated.
Now let's look at exclusion. Exclusion can entail denying another attention, friendship or mere acknowledgment. Elle decides that she no longer wants Madison as a part of her popular clique at school, so she starts ignoring Madison completely. She doesn't say hello or respond to Madison's comments or questions.
Finally, let's take a look at cyberbullying. Cyberbullying, which is putting down, gossiping, or verbally attacking someone in an online space, can be very serious because one bully's mean comment about another can be seen by a wide audience, and this can be very damaging to the victim's reputation.
Elle has many friends on the coolest social media app. She starts shooting candid videos and posting ugly and unflattering pictures of Madison. She includes hurtful captions on these photos and videos as well. When Madison sees the posts and how many people liked them, she is distraught and her self-esteem drops immensely. Madison begins to see herself as someone that others just don't like.
Relational Aggression Intervention
A 2010 article in School Psychology Review journal highlighted a comprehensive review of nine current prevention and treatment programs for relational aggression currently in American schools. The prevention programs begin as early as preschool. Yes, preschool children participate in relational aggression, too, and often in a very direct way (such as, 'You are not my friend anymore' or 'You can't play with us') compared to older children who express relational aggression in less direct manners.
In preschool, programs entail puppet shows, role playing scenarios, established rules about everyone's right to play and participate, and arts and crafts to engage kids in learning about relational aggression. Programs in preschool include The Early Childhood Friendship Project and You Can't Say You Can't Play.
In elementary school, prevention and treatment programs for relational aggression focus more on increasing problem solving, conflict resolution, and prosocial skills. Program examples that target elementary-aged kids are I Can Problem Solve, Walk Away, Ignore, Talk, Seek Help, and Friend to Friend.
In middle and high school, programs such as Sisters of Nia, Second Step, and Social Aggression Prevention Program begin to focus on decreasing aggression and antisocial behaviors in preteens and teens.
Relational aggression, or aggression intended to bring down the social status or reputation of another, is an increasing problem, especially amongst school-aged children (even more specifically, girls). Relational aggression is a nonphysical form of aggression that can come in the form of gossiping, or talking about someone behind their back; put-downs, or direct assaults on another person; exclusion, or denying another attention, friendship, or mere acknowledgement; and cyberbullying, or putting down, gossiping, or verbally attacking someone in an online space. The victim of relational aggression can experience isolation, loneliness, and sadness. Some victims will eventually experience intense anxiety, school avoidance, depression, mood disorders, eating disorders, or even harmful thoughts.
Relational aggression is often seen during unstructured time at school, such as recess, lunch time, breaks in between classes, or bus rides to and from school. There are numerous interventions in the form of prevention and treatment programs. Many of these focus on teaching kids problem-solving, conflict-resolution, communication, and prosocial skills.
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