Mean Girls in the Sandbox

Recognize and eliminate relational aggression


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“You aren’t my friend anymore,” my 4-year-old daughter announced one afternoon when I told her our playtime was finished. Taken aback, I calmly explained that we would play later. “Humph!” she said, crossing her little arms over her chest. “Then you aren’t invited to my birthday party!”

She didn’t learn those phrases at home. She heard them at preschool. A few girls had threatened my daughter with what mattered most to her — their friendship. Psychologists have a term for this behavior. It’s called relational aggression, aka friendship bullying.

According to The Ophelia Project, relational aggression encompasses ignoring, teasing, putting others down, spreading rumors, excluding others in social situations and manipulating friendships. It is behavior intended to hurt someone by harming his or her relationships with others.

A child will say, “I won’t be your friend anymore if you play with her” or, “If you don’t give me that doll, you can’t come to my birthday party,” explains Trudy Ludwig, a national anti-bullying expert and the author of best-selling books for kids on relational bullying. 

Aggressors and Victims

According to a study published by the September 2012 edition of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 25 percent of preschool children are aggressors and 22 percent are victims of peer aggression. Ruth Roberts, a kindergarten teacher at Greater Fayetteville Adventist Academy in Fayetteville, North Carolina, sees relational aggression playing out on an almost daily basis in her classroom.

And the repercussions can be serious. Children as young as 3 or 4 can experience loneliness, social withdrawal and depression. Children involved in relational aggression — as victims, aggressors or both — are more likely to suffer from mental health problems that continue into adolescence and adulthood.

“Even when bullying stops, the trauma remains,” says Mark Smaller, child psychoanalyst and president of the American Psychoanalytic Association.

The good news is that these behaviors in young kids are not yet set in stone. “Young children can learn acceptable and respectful behaviors much more easily than older children,” explains Ellen deLara, an associate professor at Syracuse University and co-author of the anti-bullying book, “And Words Can Hurt Forever.”

The key to preventing relational aggression is developing empathy. When children can experience the emotions of someone else, they are less likely to engage in hurtful behavior.

Here are nine tips parents can use to teach their kids to recognize and put a stop to relational aggression.

1. Model empathetic behavior. “The best tool is the parents’ own behavior,” Smaller says. You can model how to be kind and caring in your words and actions. When kids see parents resolve their own conflicts through speaking and listening, not through bullying, kids learn positive social interaction tools.

2. Talk about feelings. Always validate your child’s feelings. Instead of lecturing, hug your child, make eye contact and calmly explain that it is never OK to hurt others. Help her express herself and talk about what she is feeling, says Denise Daniels, child development expert and creator of “The Moodsters: Learn About Feelings.” Some young children bully or act aggressively because they are frustrated and don’t know the right words to use, deLara explains. Roberts helps her students articulate their feelings, then coaches them on how they can respond the next time.

3. Role play. Interactive activities help kids practice positive relationship skills, Ludwig says. Show them how to respond to hurtful words without returning the same behavior. Practice with them. Pretend to be the bully. Switch roles and show them several ways they might respond when a friend is hurtful. Teach them techniques, like saying “Stop!” in a clear, firm voice.

4. Create a friend group. Arrange frequent and supervised play dates. Invite kids over to your house one-on-one and in groups. As your child interacts with peers, keep a close eye on what’s happening. A friend group also helps strengthen friendship bonds with several kids. The more positive social interactions your child has in safe situations, the more she will replicate that behavior at school.

5. Teach friendship. Friendship is a learned skill. Start conversations about the way we should treat other people, Roberts says. Check out books at the library for bedtime reading that talk about making — and keeping — friends, Daniels suggests. Teach kids to choose friends who make them feel good about themselves, not friends who make them feel bad or sad.

6. Monitor the TV. Kids learn by mimicking, and they will imitate the behaviors and attitudes they see around them. This includes television shows. The 2012 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry found that relational aggression behaviors increased with exposure to television programming. Limit and screen what your child watches.

7. Condemn aggression. Parents, teachers and other adults need to speak up about relational aggression and other forms of bullying. Try to connect the act of aggression — a put-down, spreading a rumor or refusing to share — to the hurt it causes other children, and do it right away.

8. Always intervene. Don’t expect kids to work it out on their own. Kids do not have the tools or resources to alter the dynamics of bullying by themselves, according to Ludwig. Adults play a critical role in the socialization of children. Be consistent. And intervene at the group level. Let all the kids know that bullying is not acceptable. Roberts uses the “Five A’s” successfully in her classroom. Try this at home, too.

ADMIT what happened.

APOLOGIZE specifically: I’m sorry I did X.

ASK for forgiveness: Will you please forgive me for X?

ACCEPT the consequences: The goal is help the child make amends and restore the relationship.

ALTER behavior: Next time I will do X instead of Y.

9. Watch for warning signs. Smaller describes warning signs that your child may be the victim of persistent relational aggression: Headache and stomachache complaints, wanting to skip school, a change in appetite and anxiousness. Warning signs also include depression, drastic mood changes, social withdrawal from normal friends and activities, and sleeping problems.

We can help our kids strengthen their empathy muscles by talking with them about feelings, role modeling kindness and teaching problem-solving skills, Daniels says. And the more we encourage and foster empathy in our kids, the less room there is for mean, belittling attitudes and actions toward others.

“Our job as caring parents is to turn our children’s mistakes into teachable moments,” Ludwig says, “so they can move forward in positive, healthy ways.” 

Books on Relational Aggression, Empathy and Feelings

“The Moodsters: Learn About Feelings” by Denise Daniels; themoodsters.com.

“Little Girls Can Be Mean: Four Steps to Bully-Proof Girls in the Early Grades” by Michelle Anthony, M.A., Ph.D. and Reyna Lindert, Ph.D.; amazon.com.

“My Secret Bully” and “The Invisible Boy” by Trudy Ludwig; amazon.com.

Kyla Steinkraus is the author of 25 children's books and a forthcoming young adult novel titled “Beneath The Skin.” She enjoys hiking and playing games with her two children. You can learn more about her at kylasteinkraus.com.

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