What is Relational Aggression?
Relational aggression is the use of exclusionary and/or hurtful behaviors to undermine another person’s self-esteem or group status, causing harm to relationships.
Relational aggression is a more subtle form of aggression than physical violence. It uses relationships to damage or manipulate people’s status or friendships. Aggressors or “bullies” can use rumors, gossip, social exclusion/isolation, betrayal, humiliation, or lies in order to hurt their victims. As the use of technology and social media become more popular, it is becoming increasingly common for bullies to turn to these outlets to cause further harm to their victims.
Relational aggression is committed by and against both boys and girls, but is far more common among girls. It has been suggested that girls turn to relational aggression in order to assert social dominance while still staying within society’s expectation that a female shouldn't be aggressive.
Who Is Involved In Relational Aggression?
Researchers have identified four distinct groups of people involved in relational aggression:
- The aggressor or bully
- The victim
- Bystanders—people who are aware of the relational aggression that is happening and do not try to stop it
- Allies—people who take measures to help or support the victim
When Does Relational Aggression Occur?
Relational aggression peaks in late elementary school and middle school. It has been shown that children as young as four are capable of manipulating play and social circles in order to exclude other children.
Effects of Relational Aggression:
Both victims and bullies have been shown to suffer physical and psychological effects of relational aggression. Bullies report having trouble sleeping and experiencing headaches, while victims report difficulties with sleeping and eating, headaches, depression, anxiety, and loneliness. Victims often accumulate absences from school or after-school activities in order to avoid the aggression, and their grades and learning can be significantly impacted.
It is estimated that in America alone, 160,000 students miss school each day in order to avoid bullying. Victims of relational aggression may be more vulnerable to other types of interpersonal violence, such as dating violence. They may also struggle throughout their lives with avoidant behaviors and adjustment problems. Victims of relational aggression are at an increased risk of developing an eating disorder, harming themselves or committing suicide.
Treatment for Relational Aggression:
Relational aggression often happens at a time when a child’s friendships are among the most important aspects of his/her life, and the repercussions can be extremely far-reaching and damaging. People who have experienced relational aggression in the past may benefit from counseling, in order to explore their feelings of loss, shame and loneliness and in order to bolster their self-esteem.
A key component to any treatment would be to focus on assertive communication, as a constructive alternative to the complacent attitude of a victim or the aggressive nature of a bully. It is also important to treat relational aggression as a community issue, not only an interpersonal issue.
Prevention of Relational Aggression:
Schools and teachers should be on the lookout for signs of relational aggression. They should be encouraged to observe the dynamics between the students both at play and in the classroom. They need to be able to discuss with the students what forms of communication and social interaction are acceptable and have a plan to deal with those who do not adhere to rules.
It is especially important to believe victims. Often, a bully will get away with her bullying because she appears nice and well-mannered to adults. Being trusted by an adult is a key factor in breaking the abuse of the victim.
Parents should talk to their children about bullying before it happens. They should remind their children that they are available to listen to any concerns the child may have. Parents can help by teaching their children compassion, and by making non-violent forms of communication and conflict resolution a priority. Parents need to be careful to practice these values in front of their children. Children who are raised with parents who gossip learn that this is an acceptable form of communication. Parents shouldn’t excuse the behavior of bullies, but they must also be careful to not overreact. Overreaction could lead to a child not feeling comfortable sharing future information with the parent.
If it becomes clear that a child is being bullied or is bullying themselves, counseling should be considered.
Additional Resources For Relational Aggression:
The Youth & Family Resource Center provides resource pages, studies, book reviews and information on relational aggression.
The Ophelia Project is an organization aimed at raising awareness about relational aggression and serving those affected by it.
Strong Moms, Strong Girls is an organization aimed at bringing girls and women together to learn assertive communication skills and support constructive interactions. Lots of information and resources.
Names Do Hurt is a site geared specifically towards teenagers who are dealing with relational aggression. Includes resources and personal accounts.