When people think of aggression and bullying in schools, they often conjure up images of overt or direct physical behaviors such as punching or kicking or perhaps verbal conflict including shouting at or teasing others. However, there is a much wider range of ways that people can use to hurt their peers including more subtle and socially sophisticated forms of indirect aggression.
Our research team at Flinders University conducted studies of gender and age differences in aggression (1, 2) and particularly indirect aggression amongst teenage girls (3, 4, 5, 6, 7).
What is Indirect Aggression?
Indirect aggression (also called relational or social aggression) is a kind of social manipulation: the aggressor manipulates others to attack the victim, or, by other means, makes use of the social structure in order to harm the target person, without being personally involved in attack (8). This includes behaviors such as
We (2) found that girls in Australia tend to be more indirectly aggressive than boys are, especially during the teenage years.
In 2000, we conducted an in-depth qualitative study into the nature of teenage girls indirect aggression. We found that girls commonly exhibited the following types of indirect aggression:
What are the Effects of Indirect Aggression?
These more indirect or social forms of aggression are very hurtful to peers. For example: it is reported (9) that girls found social aggression to be just as hurtful as physical aggression; victims of relational aggression were less accepted, more rejected, more lonely and suffered more emotional distress than their non-victim peers (10).
In our own research (5), girls reported that indirect aggression was very distressing. Some found their victimization experiences so intolerable that they left their school. For others it was even worse with thoughts of suicide. One girl reported of her victimization experience as the worst year of my life. Another was of the view that victimization could emotionally damage someone for life.
Why Do Girls Do It?
In our research we found two common explanations for teenage girls use of indirect aggression toward their peers:
Our research findings are consistent with other work that has revealed the role of close intimate relationships as the sparks for peer conflicts (11, 12). When girls try to hurt peers they do so by blocking social goals that are very important to girls, such as the establishment of close personal relationships (10).
What To Do About It?
While there is a wealth of research on interventions for boys bullying, there is very little research on what might work specifically for girls indirect aggression. In our 2000 study, we asked girls about interventions by their schools. The girls indicated that use by schools of a top-down coercive approach resulted in cynical acquiescence by the offender(s) but the continuation of the harassment in an even more covert way.
On an optimistic note, peer helping
processes seemed to have a greater chance of success. We
have argued that because the causes of indirect aggression
appear rooted in the peer group, then solutions that use the
peer group may be the way to proceed (6). We found that
while girls were subjected to more indirect victimization
than boys, they used more constructive conflict resolution
strategies (such as compromise) than boys (2). It seems then
that girls use the same verbal and social skills to hurt
their peers as they do to resolve their conflicts. Bearing
these findings in mind, methods that may be particularly
helpful in resolving girls conflicts in schools
include humanistic approaches such as the method of shared
concern (13) and a range of processes whereby students act
as peer helpers, e.g., buddy programs, peer support, peer
counseling, peer mediation (14). More recent research
suggests that schools should do more work with bystanders
and utilize restorative justice practices (14).
For more details on these ideas for parents, see Rigby (14) and the Friendly Schools & Families resource kit (15).
Dr. Larry Owens is an Associate Professor and Associate Head in the School of Education at Flinders University in Adelaide, South Australia. His research focuses on gender differences in aggressive behaviour, with particular interest in teenage girls' use of indirect forms of aggression.
1.Owens, L. D. (1996). Sticks and stones and sugar and spice: Girls' and boys' aggression in schools. Australian Journal of Guidance and Counselling, 6, 45-55.
2.Owens, L., Daly, A., & Slee, P. (2005). Sex and age differences in victimization and conflict resolution among adolescents in a South Australian school. Aggressive Behavior, 31 (1), 1-12.
3.Owens, L., Shute, R., & Slee, P. (2000). Guess what I just heard!": Indirect aggression among teenage girls in Australia. Aggressive Behavior, 26, (1), 67-83.
4.Owens, L., Shute, R., & Slee, P. (2000a). Im in and youre out ... Explanations for girls indirect aggression. Psychology, Evolution & Gender. 2 (1), 19-46.
5.Owens, L., Slee, & Shute, R. (2000). It hurts a hell of a lot ... The effects of indirect aggression on teenage girls. School Psychology International, 21, (4), 359-376.
6.Owens, L., Slee, P., & Shute, P. (2001). Victimization among teenage girls. What can be done about indirect harassment. In J. Juvonen & S. Graham (Eds.), Peer harassment in school: The plight of the vulnerable and victimized, (pp. 215-241). New York: Guilford.
7.Owens, L., Shute, R., & Slee, P. (2004). Girls aggressive behavior. The Prevention Researcher, 11, 3, pp. 9-10.
8.Bjorkqvist, K. (1994). Sex differences in physical, verbal, and indirect aggression: A review of recent research. Sex Roles. A Journal of Research, 30, 177-188
9.Galen, B. R., & Underwood, M. K. (1997). A developmental investigation of social aggression among children. Developmental Psychology, 33(4), 589-600.
10.Crick, N. R., & Grotpeter, J. K. (1995). Relational aggression, gender, and social-psychological adjustment. Child Development, 66, 710-722.
11.Bjorkqvist, K., & Niemela, P. (1992). Of mice and women: Aspects of female aggression. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
12.Thorne, B. (1993). Gender play: Girls and boys in school. Buckingham: Open University Press.
13.Pikas, A. (2002). New developments of shared concern method. School Psychology International, 23(3), 307326.
14.Rigby, K. (2007) Bullying in schools - and what to do about it. Melbourne: ACER.
15.Friendly Schools & Families (2004). A parents guide to dealing with and preventing bullying. Child Health Promotion Research Unit, Edith Cowan University, Western Australia.