Mean Girls in the Sandbox

Recognize and eliminate relational aggression


Published:

“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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Where:
Jim Graham Building
1025 Blue Ridge Road
Raleigh, NC  27607
View map »


Website »

More information

Amongst the ancient oak trees is the heart of Raleigh. We'll help you see the forest for the trees and all its magic splendor. Tourist, local, or new to town, this is a lively small group activity...

Cost: $11

Where:
Downtown
500 S Salisbury St
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Sponsor: Let's Roam
Telephone: 833-202-7626
Contact Name: Kelly
Website »

More information

Kindermusik is a research-based early childhood curriculum that includes 45-minute classroom lessons with materials and resources that encourages parental involvement . Research has linked...

Cost: $70/month

Where:
Hope Community Building
2080 E Williams St
Hope Community Building, Fuquay Varina Room
Apex/Holly Springs, NC  27539
View map »


Telephone: 191-990-25432
Contact Name: Leigh Hamm
Website »

More information

Chip, chip, hooray! The first Zambrero in the Southeast is opening on January 24 with zingy, zesty activities! Bodacious Burritos and Bowls: $5 burritos and bowls all day Delicious Drawing: A...

Cost: Free

Where:
1 Glenwood Ave
#105
Raleigh, NC  27603
View map »


Telephone: (919) 863-2561
Website »

More information

Just in time to keep up with those home improvement resolutions for 2020, the Downtown Raleigh Home Show returns to downtown’s Raleigh Convention Center January 24-26, 2020  with a jam-packed...

Cost: Tickets are $12 for adults and free for children under 12. Advance $9 tickets

Where:
Raleigh Convention Center
500 S. Salisbury St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Sponsor: Marketplace Events
Telephone: 904-608-3823
Contact Name: Liz Morgan

More information

Sign up for a Raleigh scavenger hunt and put on your best Nick Cage impression as you seek out the national treasures hidden in Raleigh. Via an app, be guided through the cultural, historical,...

Cost: See website for fees

Where:
Downtown Raleigh
500 S. Salisbury St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Sponsor: LetsRoam!
Telephone: 833-202-7626
Contact Name: LetsRoam!
Website »

More information

Skate on an ice trail or free skate on 17,000 sq. ft of ice. Located in the Upper Pond of the Whitewater Center, the skating environment features three distinct programming areas and an on-ice...

Cost: 20

Where:
USNWC
5000 Whitewater Center Pkwy
Charlotte, NC  28214
View map »


Sponsor: USNWC
Telephone: 704-391-3900
Website »

More information

Lights is a half-mile walking trail that leads viewers through a series of immersive light installations featuring  honeycombs, vines, crystals, and other natural features integrated into the...

Cost: Free

Where:
USNWC
5000 Whitewater Center Pkwy
Charlotte, NC  28214
View map »


Sponsor: USNWC
Telephone: 704-391-3900
Website »

More information

Triangle Restaurant Week (January 20-26, 2020) is a week-long celebration of culinary excellence designed to incorporate the premier Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill and surrounding area restaurants....

Cost: $15-$35

Where:
Participating Restaurants
, NC


Sponsor: Triangle Blvd
Telephone: 919-673-5784
Website »

More information

Take a hike after dark and enjoy the sights and sounds of a quiet night along the American Tobacco Trail. We will walk to the Beaver Creek bridge and back (about one mile total). Free for ages 4...

Cost: Free

Where:
American Tobacco Trail
1309 New Hill-Olive Chapel Rd.
Apex, NC  27502
View map »


Sponsor: Harris Lake County Park and the American Tobacco Trail
Telephone: 919-387-4342
Contact Name: Joanne St. Clair
Website »

More information

Hounded by Death, the character of Everybody desperately seeks out everyone and everything they know in hope of finding something meaningful to take to the grave. These 90 minutes of theatrical...

Cost: Ticket prices start at $15

Where:
PlayMakers' Repertory Company
120 Country Club Rd
Chapel Hill, NC  27599
View map »


Telephone: 919-962-7529

More information

Rumpelstiltskin-A Tale of Gold Book by Ellie FaggionMusic and Lyrics written by Brian Shrager and Ellie FaggionProduced by special arrangement with the author.Directed by Beth Wilson...

Cost: varies

Where:
Spiritual Twist Productions
1250 Aversboro Road
Garner, NC  27529
View map »


Sponsor: Spiritual Twist Productions
Telephone: 919-977-1976
Contact Name: Kathy MacDonald
Website »

More information

David Burney, lead singer for the acclaimed Johnny Cash tribute band Johnny Folsom 4, brings his one-man show to The ArtsCenter for three shows, January 24-26, 2020.  In “Hello, I’m...

Cost: $15 to $20

Where:
The ArtsCenter
300-G East Main St.
300-G East Main Street.
Carrboro, NC  27510
View map »


Sponsor: The ArtsCenter
Telephone: 919-929-2787
Contact Name: Patrick Phelps-Mckeown
Website »

More information

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Forget tourist-filled museums, make your own memories with a photo scavenger hunt tour in Raleigh! On a Let’s Roam scavenger hunt, you and your team will work together to wander throughout...

Cost: $11

Where:
500 S Salisbury St
raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Sponsor: Let's Roam
Website »

More information

Amongst the ancient oak trees is the heart of Raleigh. We'll help you see the forest for the trees and all its magic splendor. Tourist, local, or new to town, this is a lively small group activity...

Cost: $11

Where:
Downtown
500 S Salisbury St
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Sponsor: Let's Roam
Telephone: 833-202-7626
Contact Name: Kelly
Website »

More information

Join the Museum and the Raleigh Astronomy Club to help you see the big picture — of the Universe! From comet crafts to solar observing, lectures to rocket launches, space enthusiasts of all ages...

Cost: Free

Where:
NC Museum of Natural Sciences
11 W. Jones St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Website »

More information

Join us for the Kids Exchange Spring/Summer Consignment Sale in July! This FREE ADMISSION event is the largest kids consignment sale in the nation and is held at the NC State Fairgrounds at...

Cost: 0 – $10

Where:
Jim Graham Building
1025 Blue Ridge Road
Raleigh, NC  27607
View map »


Website »

More information

Join us for the Kids Exchange Spring/Summer Consignment Sale in February!   This FREE ADMISSION event is the largest kids consignment sale in the nation and is held at the NC State Fairgrounds...

Cost: Free

Where:
Jim Graham Building
1025 Blue Ridge Road
Raleigh, NC  27607
View map »

More information

Family Wildlife Series: Tricky Tracks Saturday, January 25 10-11 a.m. Come dressed for the weather so you can roam the park learning the fine art of “tracking”.   Make a cast of an animal...

Cost: Free

Where:
Blue Jay Point County Park
3200 Pleasant Union Church Road
Raleigh, NC  27614
View map »


Telephone: 919-870-4330
Website »

More information

Kindermusik is a research-based early childhood curriculum that includes 45-minute classroom lessons with materials and resources that encourages parental involvement . Research has linked...

Cost: $70/month

Where:
Hope Community Building
2080 E Williams St
Hope Community Building, Fuquay Varina Room
Apex/Holly Springs, NC  27539
View map »


Telephone: 191-990-25432
Contact Name: Leigh Hamm
Website »

More information

RALEIGH (Jan. 16, 2020) – The North Carolina Association for Public Charter Schools will host its first school fair during National School Choice Week on Saturday, Jan. 25. The fair will take...

Cost: Free

Where:
Raleigh Convention Center
500 S. Salisbury Street
Raleigh, NC  27610
View map »


Sponsor: NC Association of Public Charter Schools
Telephone: 336-669-9996
Contact Name: Rhonda Dillingham
Website »

More information

Join the statewide kickoff to Black History Month at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh. Named a Top 20 Event by the Southeast Tourism Society since 2015, the 19th...

Cost: 0

Where:
North Carolina Museum of History
5 East Edenton Street
Raleigh, NC
View map »


Website »

More information

Just in time to keep up with those home improvement resolutions for 2020, the Downtown Raleigh Home Show returns to downtown’s Raleigh Convention Center January 24-26, 2020  with a jam-packed...

Cost: Tickets are $12 for adults and free for children under 12. Advance $9 tickets

Where:
Raleigh Convention Center
500 S. Salisbury St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Sponsor: Marketplace Events
Telephone: 904-608-3823
Contact Name: Liz Morgan

More information

Sign up for a Raleigh scavenger hunt and put on your best Nick Cage impression as you seek out the national treasures hidden in Raleigh. Via an app, be guided through the cultural, historical,...

Cost: See website for fees

Where:
Downtown Raleigh
500 S. Salisbury St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Sponsor: LetsRoam!
Telephone: 833-202-7626
Contact Name: LetsRoam!
Website »

More information

Skate on an ice trail or free skate on 17,000 sq. ft of ice. Located in the Upper Pond of the Whitewater Center, the skating environment features three distinct programming areas and an on-ice...

Cost: 20

Where:
USNWC
5000 Whitewater Center Pkwy
Charlotte, NC  28214
View map »


Sponsor: USNWC
Telephone: 704-391-3900
Website »

More information

Lights is a half-mile walking trail that leads viewers through a series of immersive light installations featuring  honeycombs, vines, crystals, and other natural features integrated into the...

Cost: Free

Where:
USNWC
5000 Whitewater Center Pkwy
Charlotte, NC  28214
View map »


Sponsor: USNWC
Telephone: 704-391-3900
Website »

More information

Spanish Alive is providing Family Spanish classes starting in January! Join us to learn Spanish as an entire family in an immersive, fun environment. Our teachers are trained Spanish educators and...

Cost: $75-$216

Where:
Spanish Alive
156 E. Chatham St
Cary, NC
View map »


Website »

More information

Rumpelstiltskin-A Tale of Gold Book by Ellie FaggionMusic and Lyrics written by Brian Shrager and Ellie FaggionProduced by special arrangement with the author.Directed by Beth Wilson...

Cost: varies

Where:
Spiritual Twist Productions
1250 Aversboro Road
Garner, NC  27529
View map »


Sponsor: Spiritual Twist Productions
Telephone: 919-977-1976
Contact Name: Kathy MacDonald
Website »

More information

Winter days find many animals curled up in their dens. They sleep warmly, awakening in spring ready to enjoy the renewed Earth. Discover how animals deal with cold weather and which ones hibernate...

Cost: For all ages; FREE. Registration is required for all family members,& childre

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
Raleigh, NC  27603
View map »


Telephone: 919-856-6675
Website »

More information

Triangle Restaurant Week (January 20-26, 2020) is a week-long celebration of culinary excellence designed to incorporate the premier Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill and surrounding area restaurants....

Cost: $15-$35

Where:
Participating Restaurants
, NC


Sponsor: Triangle Blvd
Telephone: 919-673-5784
Website »

More information

Join us in Arendelle for Frozen-inspired STEAM activities for the whole family! Included in the ticket cost is dinner and dessert for the whole family, make your own sock Olaf and Frozen bouncy...

Cost: $35 per family

Where:
Kidzu Children's Museum
201 S. Estes Dr.
Chapel Hill, NC  27514
View map »


Sponsor: Kidzu Children's Museum
Telephone: 919-933-1455
Website »

More information

AML Wrestling presents our 5th Anniversary Celebration! WHEN: Saturday, January 25th, 2020WHERE: Winston-Salem Fairgrounds in theHome & Garden Building 408 27th Street NW/Gate #9 Winston-Salem, NC...

Cost: $5

Where:
Winston-Salem Fairgrounds
408 27th Street NW/Gate #9
Winston-Salem, NC  27105
View map »


Sponsor: AML Wrestling
Telephone: 336-831-0646
Contact Name: Tracy Myers
Website »

More information

Hounded by Death, the character of Everybody desperately seeks out everyone and everything they know in hope of finding something meaningful to take to the grave. These 90 minutes of theatrical...

Cost: Ticket prices start at $15

Where:
PlayMakers' Repertory Company
120 Country Club Rd
Chapel Hill, NC  27599
View map »


Telephone: 919-962-7529

More information

David Burney, lead singer for the acclaimed Johnny Cash tribute band Johnny Folsom 4, brings his one-man show to The ArtsCenter for three shows, January 24-26, 2020.  In “Hello, I’m...

Cost: $15 to $20

Where:
The ArtsCenter
300-G East Main St.
300-G East Main Street.
Carrboro, NC  27510
View map »


Sponsor: The ArtsCenter
Telephone: 919-929-2787
Contact Name: Patrick Phelps-Mckeown
Website »

More information

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Education Guide

The 2019-20 Education Guide offers 718 education resources in the Triangle, including area preschools, private schools, public school systems, charter schools, boarding schools and academic resources.

The Triangle Go-To Guide

Our Triangle Go-To Guide connects you to family fun resources across the Triangle. In our 2019-20 issue, explore 1,028 resources for family fun.