Relational aggression and peer pressure

By: Andrea Jones, Youth Services Coordinator at AWARE in Hardwick, Vermont

Relational aggression is a type of aggression in which harm is caused through damage to relationships or social status rather than physical violence. Relational aggression is emotional violence. It relies on the use of social skills to create networks of “negativity” around a particular target. People who use relational aggression seek to manipulate how others view a particular individual. They do this by isolating the victim, spreading or posting vicious rumors and lies about the person’s private life, and exposing secrets and creating situations of public humiliation. Many of these behaviors are common in adolescent friendships, but when they occur repeatedly to one particular victim, it constitutes bullying.

The end goal of this type of bullying is to increase the social status of the bully. One  reason bullies choose this behavior rather than more direct acts of harassment
is to avoid being caught or held accountable. If there is no blood, bruising or classroom disruption, then where is the evidence? These bullies are often popular, charismatic students who are already receiving positive attention from adults. Because of their positive reputations, they are usually the least likely suspects. So, it can be very difficult to identify perpetrators of relational aggression, leaving victims to suffer longer without support.

The Ophelia Project is one of the first organizations to study relational aggression. They report the following statistics:

  • Children as young as preschool age use relational aggression as a means to an end, rather than as retaliation.
  • Relational aggression is not linked with socio-economic status – children from all social classes use relational aggression.
  • Despite such popular terms such as “mean girls” or “queen bees” – this is not a gender-specific type of bullying. Boys are also relationally aggressive. In fact, some studies show that the frequency with which boys use relational aggression increases with age, while for most girls, it decreases. 

Victims of relational aggression may appear sullen, secretive and moody. Although these behaviors can sometimes be attributed to hormonal changes or adolescent rebellion, they could also be symptoms of experiencing relational aggression. School absences, anxiety, depression and long-term mental health concerns can be consequences of experiencing relational aggression.

Relational aggression has also been linked to acts of school violence. Researchers have described how many school shooters, boys and girls, turn to violence when they are victims of social isolation and poor treatment by peers. Early adolescent peer relationships seem to be particularly important in laying the foundations for future romantic relationships.

Studies have found that women who were frequent victims as children are more likely to end up in abusive adult relationships. Using relational aggression also comes with consequences. Many who participate in this type of bullying do so because they feel pressure from another more dominant bully. These kids often feel that if they don’t side with the bully and participate, they too will be targeted as a victim. As a result of the peer pressure to bully, many who are relationally aggressive feel lonely and depressed and are likely to get into other trouble in the classroom. According to the Ophelia Project, children who are relationally aggressive are often highly disliked by many of their classmates, although they do seem to have friends. This suggests that although relational aggressors appear to be social “leaders”, they feel badly about themselves and their social situations. These children are at-risk for serious future problems such as delinquency and substance abuse.

How can parents and concerned adults help?

  • Encouraging students to form friendships and social groups based on interests rather than social status is key. Children who are caught up in a cycle of wanting to be popular may  need to be reminded to “choose friends who are nice rather than mean to you.”
  • If your child is being bullied this way, seek counseling for them.
  • If you recognize your child is the  bully,counseling is equally important.
  • Journaling can also help if the child is interested in writing or drawing about things that happen – positive and negative.
  • Seek support from the school. Most relational aggression happens at school, it’s important that the whole school community take a stand against harassment and bullying.
  • Get involved with after-school activities that will help students form friendships based on interests rather than popularity. 
  • Lastly, talk about bullying with students. Ask what they see and if they feel the adults in their lives are aware. Be supportive when your child is ready to talk and brainstorm things that can be done. If you can intervene, talk to other parents, school teachers and counselors about what is happening.