By Leah Davies, M.Ed.
Aggression or bullying can be defined as any action that inflicts physical or mental harm upon another person. Girls usually differ from boys in the type of aggressive behavior they exhibit. While boys tend to inflict bodily pain, girls most often, though not exclusively, engage in covert or relational aggression. Girls tend to value intimate relationships with girls, while boys usually form social bonds through group activities. Aggressive girls often gain power by withholding their friendship or by sabotaging the relationships of others.
Relational aggression is calculated manipulation to injure or to control another child's ability to maintain rapport with peers. For example, a relational aggressive girl may insist that her friends ignore a particular child, exclude her from their group, form secret pacts to humiliate the child, call her names, and/or spread rumors about her.
Examples of manipulation include, "If you don't play this game, I'll tell Sara that you called her stupid," or "You have to do what I say, or I won't play with you." Children in preschool have been observed excluding peers by saying, "Don't let her play," or using retaliation, "She was mean to me yesterday, so she can't be our friend." In older girls, the gossip can be more vicious, for example, "I saw her cheating," "Her mom's a drunk," or "She's a slut."
Though often subtle, nonverbal communication of an aggressive girl
is unmistakable. For example, she may roll her eyes, glare, ignore,
turn away, point, or pass notes to a friend concerning the rejected
In 1995, Crick and Grotpeter (1995) found that
members of groups run by aggressive girls appeared
caring and helpful toward each other. However,
they also observed a higher level of intimacy and
sharing in these groups. This closeness puts followers
at risk because the aggressive child is privy to
personal information that she can disclose. They
also noted a higher level of exclusivity in groups
run by relational aggressive girls. In other words,
the followers usually have few other friends to
turn to if they are rejected by the aggressive
hence they continued to conform for fear of being
isolated. They found a higher level of aggression
within these groups.
Girls often feel pressured to be compliant and
not show negative emotions. When they cannot assert
true feelings directly, resentment lingers and
their anger manifests itself indirectly. Excessive
aggressiveness can become a habit that can cause
a lifetime of problematic relationships. Therefore,
a girl who exhibits this behavior needs adult intervention
and guidance. It should be stressed that these
girls often have leadership ability, but they need
to channel it in a positive direction.
Relational aggression in girls has a negative affect
on school climate and culture, as well as on the
perpetrators and their victims. According to Crick
(1996), relational aggressive girls are disliked
more than most children their age. They exhibited
adjustment problems and reported higher levels
of loneliness and depression. These girls often
difficulty creating and sustaining social and personal
bonds. Ridiculed children have adjustment difficulties,
as well. The rejection and hurt they feel can last
a lifetime. They are more likely than peers to
be submissive, have low grades, drop out of school,
engage in delinquent behavior, experience depression,
and entertain suicidal thoughts.
What can school personnel do to combat the negative impact of relational aggression on perpetrators and their targets?
- Increase awareness among school staff so that they understand what
relational aggression is and discuss ways to combat it. Consequences for
relentless covert aggression will vary depending on school discipline procedures,
the action, and the age of the girls. Consequences could include a referral
to a counseling group or losing privileges.
- Observe children in the classroom, at lunch, in the hall, on the
playground, and before and after school, noting students' nonverbal
reactions to peers. Ask yourself:
- Who is alone on the playground?
- Who is a group leader?
- How do her followers act toward others?
- Discuss relational aggression with your students to make sure they
know that starting rumors, ridiculing others, and other forms of
covert aggression are not acceptable.
- Reinforce student social interaction skills through the use
of role-playing exercises, literature, writing assignments, and
other means. Emphasize considering the feelings of others, developing listening skills,
and exhibiting other character traits that are critical to forming
- Help girls understand that conflicts are a natural occurrence
in friendships and provide them with an opportunity to practice
being supportive of one another. Encourage them to honestly resolve problems through open
discussion and compromise. (See Finding Solutions Through Peer Mediation.)
- Believe the victim. Relational aggressive girls are skillful
at concealing their bullying. Hence, many educators are blinded
by the appearance of a model student who they feel would never engage in covert aggression.
- Understand that having at least one friend buffers a child
from relationship aggression, so facilitating friendships between
girls will help them cope with a relational aggressive child. Encourage girls to choose friends
who are considerate and trustworthy, not exclusive or mean.
- Model respect and caring. Assist each girl in developing the
belief that she is a capable person who has many strengths and who can stand
up for herself by reinforcing these attitudes at every opportunity.
- Find assistance for the victim and perpetrator. Contact a
parent and/or work with staff to foster their social and emotional development.
(See Guidelines for Educator-Parent Conferences Concerning Angry Children.)
For information on how your school can take a stand against all
forms of bullying, see Educator's Guide to Bullying.
R E F E R E N C E S
Crick, Nicki R., & Grotpeter, Jennifer K. (1995). Relational Aggression, Gender,
And Social-psychological Adjustment. Child Development, 66 (3), 710-722.
Crick, Nicki R. (1996). The Role Of Overt Aggression, Relational Aggression,
And Prosocial Behavior In The Prediction Of Children's Future Social Adjustment. Child
Development, 67 (5), 2317-2327.
Used by permission of the author, Leah Davies, and selected from the Kelly Bear website [www.kellybear.com]. 11/03
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