Relational Aggression. What is it? How can you help your child?

What is it?

Relational Aggression has been used as a term for over 25 years to describe behaviours that intend to damage or injure social relationships. Professor Nicki Crick was at the forefront of a lot of research around aggression and she noted that, while research showed that boys tended to engage in more aggressive behaviours, this was because ‘overt’ behaviours were being studied (e.g. verbal or physical aggression). Professor Crick believed that girls were more likely to be aggressive (intending to cause harm) towards relationships, and termed this ‘relational aggression’.

harming others through purposeful manipulation and damage of their peer relationships

Crick and Grotpeter, 1995

Who does it?

Crick and Grotpeter found that around 1 in 6 girls were identified as engaging in relational aggression by their classmates. Research is mixed on whether there are differences between the number of boys and girls who engage in relational aggression, and this is complicated by what is measured (relational aggression or ‘indirect’ aggression). Worryingly, these children are consistently identified as being less well-liked and rate themselves as being more lonely, isolated and depressed. These children are also more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviours at age 15.

It is not clear whether children engage in these relationally aggressive behaviours because they feel lonely and isolated, or whether they become isolated and disliked because of their behaviours.

What can we do?

Family Conflict and Parenting Style Predicts Relational Aggression.

Speiker et al. (2012) summarises a number of factors that can predict relational aggression in primary aged children. Specifically, family conflict, low empathy households and highly controlling/authoritarian parenting all predict whether children are later rated as relationally aggressive.

If you feel you need support to parent in an empathetic, low-conflict way, seek out parenting courses that teach you the skills to help your children.

Loneliness, Isolation and Peer Acceptance.

Children who engage in relationally aggressive behaviours are more likely to rate themselves as lonely and isolated, and their classmates are less likely to see them as likeable. By teaching your children how to make, and keep friends, you will be equipping them with important skills, and this may in turn reduce their need (or desire) to engage in these behaviours.

Your school, local psychology service, or community groups may be able to provide social skills or friendship groups. As a parent, you can talk through problems with your child, and come up with ways to solve the conflicts that will arise in any friendship.

Self-Esteem.

While much more limited, and more relevant to physical aggression, research has also shown that children who are perceived by others to have low self-esteem, are more likely to engage in aggressive behaviours in primary school. It is important to help your child see their own strengths, and to encourage them to pursue interests that grow their sense of self-worth and self-esteem.

Interestingly, children who see themselves as having high social acceptance, but are seen as unpopular by their peers, are most likely to be (physically) aggressive. This is thought to be related to poor social information processing in some children. That is, they are not able to understand and interpret social cues and so believe they are more popular than they are.

Taking Action

  • Talk to your child’s school. If your child is experiencing, or engaging in, relational aggression on the playground, talk to their school early. Ensure the school takes your concerns seriously and ask what they are doing to help this. The focus should be on social skills, social problem solving and restorative approaches to repairing the relationships.
  • Skill up. Parenting is hard. It is very normal for parents to need support to manage their own responses and identify ways of parenting that work for them. Triple P and Tuning Into Kids are just two wonderful, evidence-based, parenting groups that can offer support. Individual coaching from a parenting expert or psychologist may also be appropriate.
  • Build their skills. Make sure your child knows how to build relationships, sustain these and repair them when they go wrong. Some children can achieve this by talking through problems and observing, others may need more support in the form of a school- or clinic-based social skills group. Contact your child’s school, or your local psychology service, for more information on what they can offer.

If you have experience with this, please share your helpful tips below. Positive experiences of reducing relational aggression in your/your child’s class are amazingly helpful for others!

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