Bullying & Relational Aggression

Relational Aggression

All types of bullying continue to be a problem in US schools and beyond, but it’s important to remember that all bullying is not physical or verbal (e.g. teasing, threatening). Relational (or social) aggression includes non-physical behaviors that damage a youth’s status or social standing within a peer group. Relationally aggressive behaviors include gossip, social exclusion, starting or spreading a rumor behind someone’s back, giving the silent treatment, or threatening to stop being friends with someone if they don’t act a certain way. Often cyberbullying (bullying behavior that occurs through the use of electronic means) takes the form of relationally aggressive behaviors where the technology is the medium through which the victim’s social status and/or relationships are harmed.

While relational aggressors are often disliked by peers, a good portion of these bullies are socially influential and popular. They may use their relational aggression as a way to achieve higher status in the peer group (e.g., by starting a rumor about a peer in order to protect their own status in the peer group). Relationally aggressive behaviors more quickly lead to physical conflicts among urban youth in under-resourced schools.

Girls are more likely to use relational aggression as compared to physical aggression. They are more likely than boys to find the behavior emotionally taxing because they have, and greatly valued close-knit friendships. In addition, girls sometimes assess their own worth based on their social relationships, whereas boys may measure their worth based on other things, such as athleticism, as well as social relationships. Despite this, relational aggression is not just a girls’ problem, as it also occurs frequently among boys.

There are steps that parents, educators, and youth themselves can take to combat relational aggression. Read more in this CHOP fact sheet.

Recommended Reading and Resources

The following information is taken from https://injury.research.chop.edu/violence-prevention-initiative/types-violence-involving-youth/bullying-schools#.XEoHMc9Kjw5

Bullying in Schools

Although bullying is sometimes seen as “a part of growing up” or “kids being kids,” imagine the kid who is picked on every day, whether physically, socially, or through cyber-bullying. Think about Rebecca Sedwick, the 12-year-old who committed suicide in Florida following a year of bullying at the hands of two young girls. To Rebecca, the bullying was so serious and distressing that she took her own life.

Or consider the 8-year-old boy who writes to Santa Claus about his twin sister bullied over her weight: “Dear Santa … I wanted a (remote control) car and helicopter, but I don’t want that anymore. Kids at school are still picking on my sister and it’s not fair … I prayed that they will stop, and she needs your help.”

Bullying is a prevalent form of youth violence, particularly in school settings. As illustrated in the examples above, it is defined by aggressive behavior (i.e., behavior that is intentional and mean) that occurs repeatedly over time and within the context of a power imbalance. Although both are harmful to youth, there is an important distinction between bullying and aggression – if there is an occasional conflict or fighting between two children of equal strength, size, and social status, this is aggression, but not bullying.

Most school-aged children are exposed to bullying in some form due to the unequal balance of power and influence that is so common in youth relationships and peer groups. Research shows that bullying and harassment in schools increases in late childhood and peaks in early adolescence, specifically during middle school and typically takes place in unstructured settings such as the cafeteria, hallways, and playground during recess.

Students need school to be a positive climate where they feel safe. This reduces their own stress and potential aggression, allowing them to focus on the learning necessary for them to be successful in their lives.

Fortunately, there are actions that students and school staff can take to prevent bullying and harassment in schools and to create a more positive school climate. The culture of school violence cannot be impacted by only working with bullies and victims alone. It takes consistent and united action by everyone – students, school staff, administrators, and parents.

Click here to learn more about the power of a positive school climate.

Types of Bullying

To better understand how positive efforts can be made, it is important to understand the various types of bullying:

  • Physical: Related to dominance and is the most prevalent form of aggression and bullying among boys (as compared to relational). Behaviors can include hitting, kicking, and threatening violence.
  • Relational: Involves the manipulation of social standing or reputations and is the most prevalent form of aggression and bullying among girls (as compared to physical). Behaviors can include starting rumors and social exclusion. Click here to learn more about relational aggression.
  • Cyber: Involves using electronics to harm others. This type of bullying can be especially harmful because the perpetrators are more difficult to identify, it can more quickly and impulsively be spread to larger audiences, and the physical evidence of the bullying cannot be easily erased from cyberspace. Victims of cyberbullying are often also victims of traditional off-line bullying.

Regardless of the type of bullying, there are several key roles that typically participate in the behavior.

  • The bully has a power advantage as compared to the victim, whether the bully is physically stronger, more popular, and/or more socially influential.
  • The bystanders, or other peers that witness the bullying event, play a particularly important and perhaps underrated role in bullying.

Certain sub-groups of adolescents may be at a higher risk for bullying. Click here to learn more.

Facts and Statistics About Bullying and Harassment in Schools

  • Between 21 and 49 percent of youth, adolescents report being bullied in the past year
  • 70.6 percent of youth are bystanders to bullying.
  • In a 2010 study, 20 percent of girls and 25 percent of boys said they were bullied, bullied others, or both in the last month.
  • In the same study, 90 percent of third to fifth-grade students said they felt sorry for students who are bullied, but sympathy often does not translate into action.
  • A 2009 study estimated that at least 20.8 percent of youth in the US were physically bullied, 53.6 percent were verbally bullied, 51.4 percent were socially bullied, and 13.6 percent were cyberbullied at least once over a two-month period.
  • Victims of cyberbullying often do not report their victimization and are eight times more likely to carry a weapon to school.
  • A 2011 study showed that bullying at age 14 predicted violent convictions between ages 15 and 20, self-reported violence at age 15 to 18, low job status at age 18, and drug use at 27 to 32 years of age.

If your child is being the victim of bullying it is important to teach him or her assertive skills to help herself and it is important for you as a parent to know how to best advocate and support your child. If your child has begun to engage in this type of behavior, family therapy is needed to help your child find more appropriate ways to deal with stress and aggression, without resorting to bullying.  I have helped hundreds of families with these issues and I would love to be of service to you as well.

Let’s learn how to STOP Bullying and be an Upstander

Call or text me at (215) 253-0042 or email me: emilyabeledo@icloud.com

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Click here for more perspectives on addressing bullying in schools on the Research in Action blog

Recommended Reading and Resources

Research Articles

Leff, SS., Waasdorp, TE., & Paskewich, BS. The Broader Impact of Friend to Friend (F2F): Effects on Teacher-Student Relationships, Prosocial Behaviors, and Relationally and Physically Aggressive BehaviorsBehavior Modification, 2016 Volume 40, No. 4, pp. 589-610.

Leff, SS., Paskewich, BS., Waasdorp, TE., Waanders, C., Bevans, K. B., & Jawad, AF. Friend to friend: A randomized trial for urban African American relationally aggressive girlsPsychology of Violence, 2015 Volume 5, No. 4, pp. 433-443.

Leff, SS., Waasdorp, TE., & Mehari, KR. An updated review of existing relational aggression programs. In S. M. Coyne & J. M. Ostrov (Eds.), The Development of Relational Aggression 2018, pp. 283-317: Oxford University Press.

Leff SS, Waasdorp TE, Paskewich BS, Gullan RL, Jawad AF, MacEvoy JP, Feinberg BE, Power TJ. The Preventing Relational Aggression in Schools Everyday Program: A Preliminary Evaluation of Acceptability and ImpactSchool Psychology Review, 2010, Volume 39, No. 4, pp. 569-587.

Leff SS, Costigan T, Power TJ. Using Participatory Research to Develop a Playground-based Prevention ProgramJournal of School Psychology. 42 (2004), 3-21.

Leff SS, Gullan RL, Paskewich BS, Abdul-Kabir S, Jawad AF, Grossman M, Munro MA, Power TJ. An Initial Evaluation of a Culturally Adapted Social Problem-solving and Relational Aggression Prevention Program for Urban African-American Relationally Aggressive GirlsJournal of Prevention & Intervention in the Community, 37:260-274, 2009.

Waasdorp, TE., & Bradshaw, CP. Examining variation in adolescent bystanders’ responses to bullying. School Psychology Review, 2018 Volume 47, No. 1, pp.18-33.

Waasdorp, TE., Pas, ET., Zablotsky, B., & Bradshaw, CP. Ten-Year Trends in Bullying and Related Attitudes Among 4th- to 12th GradersPediatrics, 2017 Volume 139, No. 6, pp. 1-8.