Saying No to Social Bullying

Relational aggression is often harder for educators to spot than physical bullying—but prevention is possible.

As the sponsor of an extracurricular girls’ group at the high school where I teach, I was recently asked to attend a one-day seminar on cyberbullying and relational aggression. The intention was that I would (1) learn about what motivates relational aggression, (2) bring back ideas for activities to do with the students in my group and (3) raise awareness and promote bullying prevention in our school.

Relational aggression, as defined by the seminar, is “emotional violence and bullying behaviors focused on damaging an individual’s social connections within the peer group.” Relational aggression is often harder for educators to spot than physical bullying. While teachers can easily see bruises or cuts—the physical evidence of bullying—it is more difficult to see emotional pain. 

Researchers have identified certain characteristics common among those who engage in relational aggression. First, they are taught from very early on not to be violent. Second, they generally have a greater capacity for emotional memory and reading body language, which makes emotional bullying easier for them. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they tend to find their identity within their social circle rather than outside of it, leading them to target people within their social circle rather than those they see as outcasts. Researchers note that these characteristics are associated more frequently with girls than with boys, although relational aggression is certainly not limited to girls.

Educators can’t always see the mental and emotional effects of relational aggression, but there are many things they can do to help prevent it.

The first thing, especially for those who work in early childhood education, is to help all students find a sense of identity outside of their peer groups. Encourage students to engage in a variety of social groups rather than emphasizing having a best friend.

Educators can also make it a point to praise students for their individual accomplishments and encourage them to get involved in multiple activities. This will strengthen their sense of individuality and discourage them from thriving in their social circle alone. 

Here’s an activity that reminds younger students of the harm that relational aggression can do. First, have them draw a heart on a piece of paper. Then ask them to call out ways that they have been hurt emotionally—verbally and nonverbally—by others in their lives. You might hear students talk about rumors, gossip, eye rolling, exclusion and insults. For each hurt they mention, have the children fold their paper. When they cannot fold the paper any more, ask them to unfold it and try to get the wrinkles out of the paper. They will find they cannot completely smooth out the paper. Tell them the wrinkled paper is an analogy for the hurtful things we do to others. Hang your demonstration heart in the front of your classroom. The next time you hear a student say something hurtful or see her roll her eyes at someone, point to the paper and remind her not to be a wrinkle in someone’s heart.

You can also ask students to identify the role they predominantly take within their peer group by taking quizzes such as this one at Quiz Stop. Ask them to answer every question honestly. They will be given their results at the end of the quiz. After they get their results, click through each role, discuss what it means for them and brainstorm ways to change relational aggression.

Finally, talk to students about what it means to be an upstander versus a bystander. When we hear people gossiping, excluding others or putting them down and we either participate or say nothing, we allow relational aggression to succeed and negatively affect the target’s social experience or standing. Sharing a few simple phrases like “Let’s not talk about people when they’re not here to defend themselves” or “I haven’t noticed that about her” can empower students to take the steam out of a gossip session.

The most important thing for all educators to remind their students is that we all take on different roles in different peer groups. Sometimes we might participate in relational aggression; other times we might be the target or a bystander. These roles are not set in stone and will change throughout our lives. We must remind our students that it’s OK to take on a different, unfamiliar role in order to break the cycle of relational aggression.

Samsa is a freelance writer and teaches high school English in the south suburbs of Chicago.