Relational Aggression: Using Friendship as a Weapon
It begins as early as preschool: a girl turns to a peer and says, “If you don’t do what I want, I won’t be your friend anymore.” Perhaps the girl used to hit or shout when she was upset. Now, she has a new weapon for aggression: her relationship.
Relational aggression occurs through damage to another person’s friendships or social status. It can happen directly, as when you threaten not to be someone’s friend, or indirectly, through exclusion, silence or gossip that causes someone’s relationships to end. First identified by the late University of Minnesota professor Nicki Crick in the 1990s, the behavior is traditionally believed to emerge first and predominantly in girls. However, there are conflicting studies about whether girls are more likely to experience relational aggression, and when.
Other forms of relational aggression include:
- The silent treatment, where an individual or group stops speaking to you, or becomes extremely withdrawn
- Being forced to choose between two friends
- Gossip or rumors that causes the target to lose (or incur damage to) relationships
Aggression can occur in a single act, with a clear beginning and end point; bullying, by contrast, is a series of aggressive acts that occurs over time, perpetrated by someone with more social power than her target. Relational aggression, then, isn’t always an act of bullying. During elementary school, many girls experiment with relational aggression as a tool to navigate the challenges of their closest friendships.
Of course, it is critical to report unsafe behavior to the school, and to hold children accountable for their actions, but this should never be the only response. In this video, we urge parents and educators to focus less on labeling a child “mean” or a “bully,” and more on working with girls to develop the skills to identify a healthy friendship and act assertively when they feel threatened.
Research has found that parents who address relational aggression in their preschool daughters through a combination of fostering empathy for the target, communicating clearly about family values (“We don’t hurt other people’s relationships in this family”) and imposing consequences have girls who show lower levels of relational aggression several years later.
Parents who ignore the behavior have daughters who show higher levels of relational aggression later on.
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Think About It:
- How do you model conflict in your home?
- Do people tend to go silent and avoid each other when there is a problem?
- If you use silence as a way to manage difficult feelings, you might be modeling relational aggression to your daughter.
Talk About It:
Use these questions to start a conversation with girls, and be sure to let them know the definition of relational aggression.
- Do you think there is a difference between how girls and boys are mean to each other?
- Do you think it’s harder to deal with a bully who threatens to hit you, or one who threatens to spread a rumor? Why?
Powerpoint presentation on relational aggression by Nicki Crick
Read the Curse of the Good Girl to learn Girls Leadership’s Four Steps for a Difficult Conversation.