Relational Aggression and Why Kids Engage In It

Relational Aggression, The Mean Girl Phenomenon

upset teen girl with other girls in the background
Vicky Kasala Productions/Photolibrary/Getty Images

The most insidious type of bullying that often goes unnoticed by parents and teachers is relational aggression. Sometimes referred to as emotional bullying or the mean girl phenomenon, relational aggression involves social manipulation such as:

  • excluding you from a group
  • spreading rumors
  • breaking confidences or sharing secrets
  • recruiting others to dislike you

In general, girls tend to show more relational aggression than boys, especially during the tween and teen years in fifth grade through eighth grade.

Common Signs of Relational Aggression

While the tactics used in relational aggression vary from one bully to another, here are some common behaviors to look out for:

  • talking badly about others
  • backstabbing one another
  • making fun of others for who they are, the way they dress or how they look
  • excluding and ostracizing others
  • leaving hurtful or mean messages on cell phones, social media, desks, and lockers
  • intimidating others

Why Do Girls Engage in Relational Aggression?

The top reason girls engage in relational aggression involves social status within the school. For instance, girls will use relational aggression to socially isolate someone while increasing their own social status. Any number of factors drive this behavior including everything from jealousy and a need for attention to a fear of competition.

Here’s an overview of the motivating factors for relational aggression.

Relational Aggression Alleviates Boredom and Creates Excitement 

Female bullies thrive on telling a juicy story or sharing negative information.

As a result, girls will create excitement in their lives by spreading rumors, sharing secrets or telling stories. They enjoy the attention they get for knowing something others don’t know.

Peer Pressure and Relational Aggression

Some girls compromise their values or principles just to fit in with a group or to gain acceptance.

They might spread rumors or gossip in order to feel like part of the group or become more popular.

Relational Aggression and Self-Esteem 

Relational aggression is a cover-up for low self-esteem. For instance, a bully may feel insecure about her own clothes or appearance and will attack others before they have a chance to attack her.

Relational Aggression Eliminates the Competition

Many times girls will bully someone simply because they are jealous of her. Perhaps they feel she is prettier, smarter or more popular with boys. Whatever the reason, girls will often target someone to make her seem less desirable to others.

Adults Model Relational Aggression

Sometimes girls gossip and talk poorly about others because that is what they see adult women doing. Whether it is a television program, an older sister, their mother or even a group of teachers, girls often model their behavior after what is in front of them.

Emotional Effects of Relational Aggression

It’s not uncommon for parents and educators to underestimate the impact of relational aggression.

But for those on the receiving end, it is just as painful as any other type of bullying. 

Many girls report relational bullying is just as hurtful as physical aggression. In some cases, victims of emotional bullying show more signs of distress than those bullied physically. They often:

  • feel rejected, socially inept, inadequate, unattractive and unlikable
  • suffer from depression
  • contemplate suicide
  • develop low self-esteem

Continue Reading