Thursday, March 24, 2011

Relational Aggression

A group of four tween girls were standing across the street from me the other day. Two of the girls were fighting with each other. At first it was verbal, then they started trying to kick each other in the legs. The two other girls stood in between them trying to prevent something from breaking out, and one of those girls was dropping the “f-bomb” like crazy. While I don’t know the authenticity of the altercation, as they seemed to be laughing in the midst of it, I was still surprised at what was happening before my eyes. These girls could have been friends and “play fighting,” but regardless what drives young girls to act like this?

Relational aggression behaviors are intended to harm someone. One of the most common behaviors I think of is the purposeful isolation of a peer. You’ve seen the movie Mean Girls, right? Well that is definitely a prime example of relational aggression. [Note: Check out the book Queen Bees and Wannabees: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence by Rosalind Wiseman. I saw her speak at Saint Michael’s during my senior year in college. Very engaging speaker and a must read for parents of teens, males and females.]

Relational aggression is much more covert than other types of aggression. Females are also more likely to be the culprits of such behaviors, as males tend to use physically aggressive behaviors. However, this does not mean males are not involved in relational aggression. In females there is a strong sense to belong, especially during the tween/teen years. As seen in Mean Girls, you expect a clique of sorts to run the show. The goal is to try isolate a person from joining the group or pushing one out. This is known as proactive bullying; there is a goal. Reactive bullying is retaliation. A victim of bullying responds to being provoked in some way.

Some common behaviors exhibited in relational aggression include: exclusion, teasing, gossiping, rumor spreading, and more recently, cyberbullying.

Growing up you may have been victim of aggression, and maybe even relational aggression. Thinking back on my adolescence, I know that I certainly was.  It does seem that what was faced by us nowhere near as bad as what children face today, especially with the advent in technology. However, there is a strong tendency to believe these types of behaviors are normal. For a long time there seemed to be a tendency to normalize these aggressive behaviors; something every child faces during their life. However, this is not a normal experience, nor should it be viewed as one. The effects of all bullying result in lifelong consequences. Students that are victims of bullying suffer from increased anxiety, depression, and suicidality. Students also have been found to have lower academic performance. The social rejection experienced by victims of relational aggression may also lead to later anti-social behavior. Many students do not even want to go to school in the morning as a way to avoid the torment. According to the “National Education Association reports as many as 160,000 kids miss school every day out of fear of being victimized by such behaviors” (Suffolk Public Schools, n.d.; The Opehlia Project, 2006).

I recently read an article about how to help the victims of bullying behavior. It’s easy to focus on the perpetrators, but it seems the victims get left to handle the stress on their own. This article advocated for the use of problem-based learning (PBL). In using PBL strategies, students were able to identify key problems in a scenario, brainstorm potential solutions, research, and practice the skills identified in the research (Hall, 2006).

Currently, 45 states have anti-bullying laws, including Massachusetts (Bully Police USA, 2011). Massachusetts’ law is rated as “A++.” In my practicum placement bully report forms were distributed school-wide. All faculty and staff were given forms to be completed if a child informs you of bullying or you witness and incident. How many of these forms have been filled out? How many incidents are taken seriously by school personnel and action taken? These questions I don’t know the answer to, but it is something I hope to find out not only for my school, but the various schools other school psychology students are serving.

 Being a bystander is just as bad as being the aggressor. It is important for our students to know that. It brings to mind the MBTA campaign of “See something, say something.” This is a trouble spot for me. I am in my placement for at least 10 hours for week. While I am a familiar face its hard to figure out where the authority lies. Sometimes I see things or hear things that make me uncomfortable. I know that these are the things I should stand up and say something, even as simple as running through the halls. However, many students don’t take me seriously. If you’re a graduate student, how do you deal with this balancing act? If you’re a school psychologist, what advice do you have for us finding our way in the field?

What are your thoughts on relational aggression and bullying? What is done at your school? Did you ever experience relational bullying? Share your thoughts, opinions, questions, etc. 

References/Helpful Sources
Bully Police USA (2011). Retrieved from website
Hall, K. (2006). Using problem-based learning with victims of bullying behavior. Professional School Counseling, 9(3), 231-237. 
The Ophelia Project (2006). Retrieved from website
Suffolk Public Schools (n.d.) Retrieved from website

Until next thyme, 


  1. LOVE that twitter occasioned some School Psych networking!!

    "The effects of all bullying result in lifelong consequences." <--SO true!

    In terms of "saying something," I think it is probably developmentally appropriate that you are reluctant (provided you would say something if serious harm was involved) to stop kids from running in the hallway, for example. From my experience, I have NO problem reprimanding students in the hallway if it is out of control (+I have developed relationships with school staff). In addition, I am finishing my 3rd year and have had enough contact with kids that I have mastered the "teacher look" bahaha! Many times, all I have to do is give 'the look' and they file back in line. You'd be amazed at the effects that simply standing there watching has on kids. I didn't realize it, but all of this professional development has been occurring over the years and now I speak and carry myself in a way that earns respect and facilitates positive, constructive interaction with others. Like someone who is well on her way to becoming a Psychologist!! *gasp*

    But I wouldn't worry too much about it at this point. It is great that you are mindful of it, however, and you'll develop your own style for handling those situations in due time. Ok, I sound like a mom so I'm stopping haha :)

  2. Thanks for the advice. The teacher look is definitely a talent I need to keep working on.

    Students at my school believe they can get away with a lot more than they should. I mean, the school is very strict when it comes to rules, so when they are alone most students have a tendency to do as they wish. I can't fault them on that because I'd need a movement break too! I'm looking forward to working with some older kids next year in a middle school to really work on my skills ha!

    I definitely think my practicum seminar is a great opportunity to work on these skills and work on "what if" scenarios.

    P.S. I also LOVE the networking of school psychologists that happening. Nice to chat with people who have been in my shoes and are in the field with advice to share :)

  3. Great article from the Huffington Post by Rosalind Wiseman, as referenced above.