Managing ‘Mean’ Behaviour: Relational Aggression

See also: Cyberbullying

When parents of girls come together, sooner or later, the conversation will turn to the behaviour of girls in groups. One particularly common topic is ‘mean girl’ behaviour: the belittling and undermining of another girl in the group using words and behaviour to damage their social standing in the group. Psychologists call this pattern of behaviour relational aggression.

This pattern often happens within friendship groups and can therefore be dismissed by some as ‘just girls’. However, it is a form of bullying, and should be dealt with before it has serious consequences for both perpetrator and those affected.

It is also important to understand that although this behaviour often manifests in girls, it is not exclusive. Boys too can show—and be victims of—relational aggression and may also need help to manage it.

What is Relational Aggression?

Relational aggression is defined as behaviour that aims to damage someone else’s social standing or position within the group. Linda Stade, an Australian educator, describes it as using relationships as weapons.

Relational aggression can show as a range of behaviours, including:

  • Exclusion of one person from the group;

  • Gossiping about someone, or talking unpleasantly and often untruthfully about them while they are not there;

  • Ignoring someone, running away from them, and pretending not to notice them;

  • Belittling someone, which is often dressed up as a joke, a bit like male ‘banter’; and

  • Conditional friendship, where inclusion in the group depends on behaving in a particular way (for example, gossiping about others, or behaving rudely).

All these strategies are designed to exclude or separate someone from the peer group by making them stand out as ‘different’. It is therefore a way to change the power balance in the group.

Relational aggression is all about power

It is often used by people who feel that they are in some way challenged by another in the group or are insecure in some way.

It is NOT a normal part of friendships and should never be seen or condoned as such.

Dismissing it as ‘just girls’ risks setting girls up for a lifetime of relationships in which they struggle to assert themselves or find it difficult to be themselves in a group.

Why Does Relational Aggression Happen?

Relational aggression happens for one simple reason: the opposite of inclusion is exclusion.

  • By creating exclusion for someone else, it is easier to make yourself included.
  • By ensuring that someone else is off-balance emotionally, you can make yourself look more balanced.

We all want to be part of a group. It is an important part of being human.

Adolescence is a time when both boys and girls move away from their parents emotionally. They start to make their own space in the world—and that means in their peer groups. They therefore have a huge need to ‘belong’, which makes them very vulnerable to relational aggression. However, relational aggression also happens much earlier, even among children of primary school age.

The perpetrators are often driven by their own fear of ‘not being good enough’, and therefore being excluded from the group themselves.

This basis in power is why relational aggression is not always about the same ‘victim’—and why it is so hard for schools to manage.

The perpetrator may well be anxious about several other people within the group and feel the need to damage their social status. By setting them against each other, she (or he) can also damage their relationships with each other, and prevent them from either ‘ganging up’ or simply walking away together.

Managing Relational Aggression

Relational aggression is very hard to manage, because those doing it often have very good social skills. They can be extremely charming.

Many adults, including teachers, find it almost impossible to believe that such a charming child or adolescent is capable of behaving that way. Perpetrators may also hide behind lies such as ‘I was only joking’.

As parents, however, there are a number of things that you can do to help children to manage relational aggression, whether it is addressed at them or others. These include:

  • Model good friendships. Children learn from their parents. We all have a tendency to complain about our friends, especially to our partners—and children hear and mimic. Take time to talk about what is good about your friends, without being blind to their faults—and encourage your children to do the same.

    You may find it helpful to read our page on Friendliness.

  • Help your children to develop and show kindness, compassion and empathy. Children seem to find it particularly hard to show these qualities in their peer relationships, so you may need to teach them how to do so.

    There is more about these qualities in our pages Compassion and Empathy. You may also find it useful to read our pages on Emotional Intelligence, to help your children understand their own and others’ emotions.

  • Create opportunities for your children to mix in different social groups. Doing lots of activities outside school, such as sports, Guides or Scouts, and music, means that they mix with different groups of children. This ensures that they are less reliant on their class at school and will help them to be more resilient in the face of relational aggression.

  • Help your children to solve their own problems, rather than leaping in yourself. Children need help to learn to navigate social problems, and to deal with people. Encourage them to stand up for themselves and others, and to be assertive about their own rights and wishes, without being aggressive. Give them the tools to solve their own problems—but consider alerting the school to an ongoing issue to ensure that they are also aware of what is happening.

    You may find it helpful to read our pages on Assertiveness for more about how to develop assertiveness.

  • Encourage your children to form strong friendships within the rest of the group—and get the other parents onside. If you are worried about what is happening within the group, it is likely that other parents will also be worried. Get together with them to encourage your children to form strong friendships, and then simply walk away together from any relational aggression by another child. Especially at primary school, there is a lot you can do by way of play dates and excursions to build friendships.

With older children, you may find that it is helpful to set clear rules about ‘screen time’, or ban technology from bedrooms after certain hours. This can help to limit the time that groups of young people are available to each other—and therefore the potential problems. For more about this, see our page on Cyberbullying.

Three types of people are particularly helpful in countering relational aggression

  • Defenders, the people who are prepared to stand up—and speak up—for themselves and others, and will not let bullying happen. They call out the problem and highlight what is happening.
  • Distractors, those people who are very good at simply turning the conversation onto something else.
  • Supporters, those who may struggle to say anything, but who are prepared to catch the eye of a victim of bullying, and show that they are there, with them, and that they have seen what is happening.

If possible, encourage your child to become one or more of these types, and learn the skills needed to do it more often.

Relational Aggression in Adulthood

Relational aggression is not a problem that is exclusive to children. Adults do it too. They are, however, often a lot more subtle about it.

It is worth being aware of this if you notice that someone suddenly seems very unpopular within your social group, and you don’t know why. You may, for example, notice that there is gossip circulating about them, or that they are standing alone a lot at the school gates. If so, try smiling at that person and saying hello—and certainly don’t share the gossip further. If you witness ‘mean’ behaviour, try to be a defender or distractor, even if it does feel uncomfortable.

A final word

Perhaps the most important lesson to teach children is that relational aggression can be managed. They do not have to put up with it. There are skills that they can develop to become more resilient to it and, as parents, we can help them to do so.

They can and should also tell someone in authority what is happening. Schools need to know—and it is best if it comes from the people concerned.