Every October National Bullying Awareness Month serves as a reminder that bullying prevention must be at the forefront of our work as teachers. For many people, the word “bullying” brings to mind physical aggression — stolen backpacks, fights on the playground, a shouting match in the lunchroom. Bullying can, however, take the form of relational aggression, especially for girls.
Relational aggression is a form of bullying in which harm is caused by damaging someone’s relationships or social status, and while it may not cause physical wounds, the effects are just as painful. I recently took the opportunity to learn more about this issue by reading Rachel Simmons’ groundbreaking book on girls and bullying, Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls. As an educator and the parent of two young girls, Simmons’ work had a profound impact on me, and I wanted to take this time to share with you some of her most enlightening revelations based on her years of research. I hope you can use this information as you reflect on bullying prevention in your own school.
The Rise of Relational Aggression
Simmons believes that girls are pressured to act like traditional ‘nice girls’ or risk being labeled as mean (or worse); girls also learn early to place a high value on social status and relationships. Together, these expectations discourage girls from expressing anger and other emotions that may damage their friendships or reputations. Lacking socially acceptable ways to openly express or acknowledge conflict, girls develop what Simmons calls “a hidden culture of silent and indirect aggression. They take their strong feelings and competitive urges underground — or at least out of sight of adults.” Katelyn Alcamo, a marriage and family therapist, describes it this way: “Establishing and maintaining healthy friendships is one of the most important tasks adolescents, especially girls, face in their daily lives. Navigating this world can at times be likened to an elaborate game of chess, where each move is thought out and methodical, and strategies change based on the moves of others. In trying to survive, girls often employ strategies that can be harmful to others, even those they consider their closest friends. The use of these strategies is called relational aggression.”
So what does relational aggression look like in our schools? Here are some examples below. Note that both boys and girls participate in these behaviors, although Simmons’ work focuses specifically on girls.
One girl or a group of girls may participate in ignoring the behavior. Sometimes the “reason” is clear (an intentional or inadvertent offense, for example), but other times, the target may have no idea why she is being ignored.
Sharing personal information
This happens when a girl confides in a friend and that friend shares the confidential information with others. This can be especially harmful when the information is about a third peer, as that relationship is also likely to be damaged.
Teasing and put-downs
Teasing and put-downs are used frequently, even in friendships. Often these are subtle and used under the guise that “real friends tell their friends the truth, even if it hurts.” When a girl stands up for herself, she may be labeled as sensitive and told to “lighten up.”
Rumors and gossip
Rumors and gossip spread like wildfire in middle and high schools. Gossip, often used as a tool to destroy the reputation of someone a girl is mad at or doesn’t like, may be about something a girl did or said (or is purported to have done or said) but might also be used to instigate a fight between two girls with rumors that one girl wants to fight the other.
Girls use exclusion as a way to both maintain social status and keep others from obtaining status. Girls within a friendship group can also exclude their own friends. These alliances within a friendship group can change from week to week and sometimes, day to day. In some cases, a girl may never really know where she stands in her group, and this uncertainty can cause stress and anxiety.
Cyberbullying is pervasive. Students can no longer go home after school to seek refuge from the drama. Relational aggression is present constantly, and many more people might be included. Girls might post harmful and untrue statements about someone else or send angry, rude, and vulgar messages directed at one person to an entire group. Some also pretend to be someone else in order to elicit certain information that is later shared with others.
From Surviving Relational Aggression: Tips for Adults and Girls What Can We Do About Relational Aggression?
Teachers, administrators, and counselors can be a great support for students who are experiencing relational aggression, although it can be challenging. While it is easy to see and therefore intervene in physical acts of bullying, it takes extra vigilance and proactive strategies to prevent or end indirect aggression. Rachel Simmons believes we should talk with students, especially girls, early and often about power—their own and that of others—and help them recognize that they can use it for good or hurt.
Here are some other important steps we can take in school to prevent relational aggression:
1. Discuss and share clear definitions of bullying, including cyberbullying and relational aggression.
2. Intervene early in all forms of bullying, and teach students safe and positive intervention strategies, too. As nurturing adults, we must be willing to name what we see when girls (and boys) engage in “mean girl” behaviors.
3. Teach empathy. Help students understand the impact of their behavior on others to help them make better choices and have greater empathy for others.
Help students find ways to use social power for good. Connect students with volunteer opportunities they can do together. Organizations like Fearlessly Girl, and Girls Inc. also help girls find ways to be “sheroes” in their schools and communities.
4. Explicitly teach appropriate online behavior. According to Simmons, the “digital native” myth is dangerous. While young people are good at manipulating tech gadgets, they are not experts at interacting in the complex world of social media. They still need adult guidance and support to interact safely and responsibly.
If you are interested in learning more classroom tips to build a culture of acceptance and prevent relational aggression, click here to access our chart with easy-to-implement strategies.
From Odd Girl Out and Rejecting The ‘Mean Girl’ Framework
There is so much we can do as parents, teachers, and administrators to help young people overcome relational aggression. Simmons reminds us that “the heart of resistance is truth-telling.” She encourages all adults to foster emotional honesty and create spaces where girls and boys can openly share and discuss their experiences and feelings regarding bullying. Most importantly, we must refuse to accept that “mean girl” behavior is unavoidable. This work begins with us.