Relational Aggression

What is Relational Aggression?
Relational Aggression and Why Kids Engage In It


What is Relational Aggression?

Relational Aggression (R.A.) is a form of bullying common among tweens, and especially tween girls. The behavior describes an individual, or a group of individuals, who try to hurt a peer, or sacrifice another's standing within their peer group. Girls who exhibit Relational Aggression are sometimes referred to as Mean Girls.

About Relational Aggression

A child on the receiving end of relational aggression is likely to be bullied, gossiped about, teased, insulted, cyberbullied, ignored, excluded, and intimidated.

Relational Aggression is common during the middle school years, but is not limited to tweens. Preschoolers and adults can also engage in relational aggression.

Tweens who practice Relational Aggression do so to increase their own social standing, or control others. Unlike physical bullying, it can be difficult to spot Relational Aggression and the behavior may go on for some time before an adult notices.

Many states have laws that address bullying in the schools, so parents and educators should work with their school system to prevent or address bullying or Relational Aggression. In addition, if you think your child might be a victim, open up the lines of communication so that he or she can talk with you about the situation.

In addition, it's helpful to involve victims of bullying in extra-curricular activities in order to help them make friends with others who share their interests. In some cases, professional help is advised for victims and their families.

Relational Aggression and Why Kids Engage In It

Relational Aggression, The Mean Girl Phenomenon

The most insidious type of bullying that often goes unnoticed by parents and teachers is relational aggression. Sometimes referred to as emotional bullying or the mean girl phenomenon, relational aggression involves social manipulation such as:

  • excluding you from a group
  • spreading rumors
  • breaking confidences or sharing secrets
  • recruiting others to dislike you

In general, girls tend to show more relational aggression than boys, especially during the tween and teen years in fifth grade through eighth grade.

Common Signs of Relational Aggression

While the tactics used in relational aggression vary from one bully to another, here are some common behaviors to look out for:

  • talking badly about others
  • backstabbing one another
  • making fun of others for who they are, the way they dress or how they look
  • excluding and ostracizing others
  • leaving hurtful or mean messages on cell phones, social media, desks, and lockers
  • intimidating others

Why Do Girls Engage in Relational Aggression?

The top reason girls engage in relational aggression involves social status within the school. For instance, girls will use relational aggression to socially isolate someone while increasing their own social status. Any number of factors drive this behavior including everything from jealousy and a need for attention to a fear of competition.

Here’s an overview of the motivating factors for relational aggression.

Relational Aggression Alleviates Boredom and Creates Excitement

Female bullies thrive on telling a juicy story or sharing negative information.

As a result, girls will create excitement in their lives by spreading rumors, sharing secrets or telling stories. They enjoy the attention they get for knowing something others don’t know.

Peer Pressure and Relational Aggression

Some girls compromise their values or principles just to fit in with a group or to gain acceptance.

They might spread rumors or gossip in order to feel like part of the group or become more popular.

Relational Aggression and Self-Esteem

Relational aggression is a cover-up for low self-esteem . For instance, a bully may feel insecure about her own clothes or appearance and will attack others before they have a chance to attack her.

Relational Aggression Eliminates the Competition

Many times girls will bully someone simply because they are jealous of her. Perhaps they feel she is prettier, smarter or more popular with boys. Whatever the reason, girls will often target someone to make her seem less desirable to others.

Adults Model Relational Aggression

Sometimes girls gossip and talk poorly about others because that is what they see adult women doing. Whether it is a television program, an older sister, their mother or even a group of teachers, girls often model their behavior after what is in front of them.

Emotional Effects of Relational Aggression

It’s not uncommon for parents and educators to underestimate the impact of relational aggression.

But for those on the receiving end, it is just as painful as any other type of bullying.

Many girls report relational bullying is just as hurtful as physical aggression. In some cases, victims of emotional bullying show more signs of distress than those bullied physically. They often:

  • feel rejected, socially inept, inadequate, unattractive and unlikable
  • suffer from depression
  • contemplate suicide
  • develop low self-esteem