HELPING CHILDREN COPE WITH RELATIONAL AGGRESSION
What is relational aggression?
Relational aggression can take several forms. Here are a few of some of the most common.
Insults and put-downs. This could be blatant insults in front of others, such as making fun of someone’s appearance. This can also be more subtle, so that if the victim reacts, the perpetrator says that he/she was “just joking”, or says, “You can’t take a joke”, or “You’re being too sensitive.”
Gossiping. Talking about a person behind his/her back is a form of relational aggression. It does not matter if the information is true or false. If it is negative information, it is hurtful, and it is aggression. This can be so damaging because children typically care a great deal what their peers think of them.
Being left out. It is not reasonable, expected, or even healthy to be invited to everything.
But relational aggression involves the kind of exclusion that is deliberate, planned, and meant to hurt. An example would be a girl having a gathering of friends over, and then whispering about it in front of a girl who would have expected to be included but was not, or talking afterwards about how fun it was in front of her. With social media, this is taken to another level through posts of photos of gatherings with friends. This can also be a subtle glance of “you’re not welcome at this table” in the school cafeteria.
Being ignored. Everyone wants to matter, to be heard. Boys and girls who engage in relational aggression capitalize on this, and hit where it hurts. An example might be blatantly talking over someone at the lunch table. Once again, unfortunately social media provides a method to ignore. A girl may tag everyone in a photo except the girl she intends to hurt. A girl may also decide to suddenly stop talking to someone and give them the “silent treatment”, not responding to a text, a Snap Chat streak, or an Instgram direct message. This leaves the girl wondering what she did to cause the other person to be upset and ignore her, when the reality is that she has done nothing wrong.
What is going on with “frenemy” behavior or relational aggression is emotionally painful and harmful. In fact, if done by a parent to a child, it would be labeled “psychological maltreatment” and be considered abuse. Relational aggression is a form of emotional assault.
Relational aggression has very little to do with a friendship, by the true definition of a friendship. Relational aggression, or “frenemy” behavior has more to do with power and control, and trying to earn social status through power. Unfortunately, that power is often achieved through exclusion and knocking others down. What is disturbing is that even “nice” children do not have the courage or confidence to speak up. In addition, they witness the ostracism and pain that it causes and will do almost anything to avoid feeling that, and they attempt to please or “win over” the perpetrator. This is also particularly difficult for children because it is unpredictable and baseless. A child can be excluded simply because the ring leader decided it’s that person’s turn. The memory of the emotional pain of feeling excluded or made fun of, or witnessing someone be excluded or made fun of leads to fear of becoming the next victim. And it is this fear that perpetuates the awful “mean” behavior.
The trouble with social aggression.
Social aggression can be so troublesome for kids because when they call out others behavior, there are often negative consequences. Kids are then told that they are being too sensitive, or that they are exaggerating. The perpetrator then knows that it is bothering the teen and may then cruelly do it even more. And the victim does not speak up because nothing was done about it in the past, and it only led to negative social consequences for the victim.
Social aggression is also troublesome because it is hidden. The perpetrator becomes skilled at concealing the behavior from adults. This can happen right under the watchful eye of adults because it can be so subtle.
It is also troublesome because it is difficult to prove someone’s malicious intention. For example, a perpetrator may try to make a teen feel badly by being excluded and not “tagging” the person in a photo where everyone else is tagged. When confronted, the perpetrator can say that he or she simply “forgot” to tag the person, and there is no way of proving that the omission was intentional. A perpetrator may also post an unflattering picture of a teen on social media, and then when confronted, give the impression of being kind by stating that he or she actually thought that it was a flattering picture of the person.
How parents can help.
Parents can help by speaking with a guidance counselor, student assistance counselor, or mental health professional within the school setting. This can be done proactively, or when a student, teacher, or parent points out what is occurring within a group. The goal is to discuss what is happening and the strong negative impact that it has on the victim. The facilitator can set the tone, making it “uncool” behavior to engage in, and “cool” to step in and call someone out when it is occurring. One tricky part is to make sure that the tables are not turned. In others words, the goal is not to shame the perpetrators or turn the tables on them so that they become the victims. The goal is simply to make the behavior stop so that there are no more victims.
Parents can also help address relational aggression by teaching accountability and responsibility. If you suspect that your own child is engaging in this behavior, make a point to discuss it with your child, without shaming. Talk with your child about the negative emotional impact that this has on others. Also encourage your child to talk about his/her feelings and why he/she would engage in this behavior. Were his/her feelings hurt by someone and this is a form of retaliation? How has he/she felt when excluded? What is motivating his/her behavior? Insecurity? Retaliation? Poor coping skills? Attempt to uncover why he/she would behave this way, and help him/her to find healthy alternatives. For example, if your child is behaving this way because he/she feels insecure and/or excluded herself and is attempting to gain social status and power, encourage your child to pick a friend he/she feels close to, and facilitate a social outing with that friend. Then encourage them NOT to post their get together on social media.
Parents can also help address relational aggression by developing empathy. A parent can point it out when he/she sees it on television or in real life. Ask your child, “How do you think that child felt when he/she was excluded?” “Have you ever found out about a party that you were not invited to, and how did you feel?” “What do you think can be done to stop mean behavior?” “Have you ever felt compelled to behave badly due to your own hurt feelings?”
Monitor your child’s on-line behavior. This includes not just your child’s posts, but his/her friends’ posts. I work with several teens and tweens in my private practice, and I have the privilege of hearing about their emotional wounds. I am finding that more and more, children are hurt emotionally about what is being posted on social media, in addition to what is happening in real life. Children are using social media more than ever as a form of relational aggression, and often this is what is causing significant emotional pain, rather than what is happening in real life. One way that I have seen and heard about is for a girl/boy to post a random photo on Instagram, and then in the comments, complain about being mistreated by someone without naming that person. The poster then receives support from her “followers”, often calling the other person names and making severe insults, because they do not even know who they are writing about. They think they are simply supporting their friend, that they are innocent, and that it is harmless to say such cruel things because the person they are writing about is not named. They do not think about the harm being done simply because the person is not named. On the other hand, if another girl knows who the post is about, and she has an issue with that girl as well, she may say even more cruel things. Most often, the person being written about knows that it is him/her, and this is extremely emotionally damaging to see a “friend” write something terrible about him/her, but then all of the other “friends” write about how horrible he/she is, sometimes even with foul language and threats of physical harm. And even if he/she does not know for sure that the vague post is about him/her, it can lead to anxiety and wondering that may be so intense as to interfere with daily functioning. It is therefore important to not only monitor and ask your child about his/her posts, but to talk with your child about any of his/her friends’ posts that you find troubling or stirring up drama.
Parents can also protect their children by enforcing device-free zones, and device-free times. Children simply need a break from friendships at times. These days with their devices, they do not get a break. Notifications are constantly streaming in from Instagram, SnapChat, Facebook, musical.ly, and group texts. Teenagers’ brains are at a developmental stage such that they are lured into wanting more and more, making it difficult for them to set limits themselves and stick to them. And brain studies have demonstrated that it actually becomes an addiction, as it stimulates the pleasure center of the brain. They simply need parents to set limits for them.
Parents are also a powerful influence in combating relational aggression by being a role model. Be mindful of being a positive role model for the wonderful aspects of a healthy friendship. If you are going out to dinner with girlfriends, mention to your daughter how great it is that the dinner conversation does not include any gossip. Talk about how you love spending time with this group of women because they do not put others down, so you know they are not putting you down when you are not with them. Talk with your son about how great it feels to have the confidence to speak up for someone who is being mistreated, and how important it is to build people up rather than knocking them down.
Probably the most difficult part of helping your child to address relationship aggression is to teach him/her ways of stepping in when he/she witnesses it. The most difficult way is to be an “upstander”. This is difficult, because then he/she risks retaliation from the perpetrator and being left out herself. If your child is bothered by watching a perpetrator repeatedly single someone out, you could help your child by providing him/her with words to use, and then role playing the intervention. We would think that the more people that are watching someone being mistreated, the more likely for someone to step up and intervene. Unfortunately, this is not the case. What happens instead is the “bystander effect”. The presence of others actually decreases the likelihood that someone will step in and help the victim. One reason that this happens is called “diffusion of responsibility”, or believing/hoping someone else will intervene. Teach your child about the bystander effect, as he/she may then feel more personally responsible and be more likely to intervene.
A way that parents can help their children combat social aggression when they do not feel strong enough to be an “upstander” is to be a supporter. If your child witnesses unfair or cruel treatment, he/she can make a positive impact on the victim by being a supporter. One simple way to support the victim is to make eye contact while the act is occurring, with a look of concern. This sends the message to the victim, “I see you, you are not alone, I care about you.” Then encourage your child to make a point to talk to the victim to follow up on that support.
Unfortunately, relational aggression is likely a part of the life of a teen/tween. The more that you keep an open dialogue with your child about it, the more likely he/she will be able to address it, choose friends who do not engage in it, not engage in it himself/herself, and have the preparation, courage, and sense of responsibility to intervene when your child sees it happening.