Relational Aggression

(Reproduced with permission from Girl Scouts of Nassau County, New York.)

Covert aggression between our children is escalating. In a prevailing culture of meanness, girls and adults seem to shrug it off as simply something all girls do. What is it? It’s a behavior called relational aggression.

What is Relational Aggression (RA)?
Relational aggression is behavior that is intended to harm someone by damaging or manipulating his or her relationships with others. Relationally aggressive behaviors include exclusion, malicious gossip and rumor spreading, teasing, name calling, alliance building, covert physical aggression and cyber bullying. (Ophelia Project 2006)

How You Can Help

Relational aggression affects everyone. Here are some things you can do as a positive adult in young girls' lives:

  1. TALK. Girls need to hear how we define bullying and why they shouldn’t do it.
     
  2. LISTEN AND ASK QUESTIONS. Girls may be hesitant to share what is happening to them because of shame or fear of retaliation. Be patient, listen carefully and take what they say seriously.
     
  3. KEEP THEM SAFE. Girls who have been bullied may develop low self esteem or become depressed. Let them know it is not their fault; it is the bully who has the problem.

Why Should Relational Aggression Worry Us?
The cost of these attitudes exacts a heavy toll on each of us, especially youth. It can influence absenteeism from school, eating disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, risky sexual behaviors, depression, low self esteem and even self mutilation, such as cutting or burning.

Commonly Held Beliefs
Often ignored by adults, this kind of abuse can become a form of emotional terrorism. Professionals, parents and even girls often believe that:

  • Shunning and gossiping are simply a "stage" that girls eventually outgrow.
  • All girls go through it.
  • They will manage to survive.
  • It’s just how girls are.

Girl Scouts of Nassau County introduced its Critical Issues initiative nearly two years ago focusing on the issue of relational aggression, collaborating with the Ophelia Project. Together they created an awareness-raising presentation, followed by a six-week program on friendship.

In 2006, girls in grades K-12 were offered the opportunity to participate with their troops in the Friendship Program. More than 2,000 girls were signed up to be part of the program; 785 Girl Scouts completed it and were eligible for inclusion in the study. All girls completed a survey at the end of the program, but girls in grades 4-12 completed a survey beforehand as well. These results were compiled to discover what girls think, feel and believe about aggression in their lives, their schools and their Girl Scout community.

  • 56% of Daisy and Brownie Girls Scouts who participated in the study say they feel afraid to talk because other kids will make fun of them.
  • 82% say they are afraid other kids will be mean to them sometimes or all the time. Particularly striking is that even at these young ages, children are already showing signs of succumbing to negative peer pressure.

For older girls in grades 4-12, it was found that as they got older their confidence in the classroom continued to erode at an even more alarming rate.

  • 70% of girls said they feel afraid to ask or answer a question because other students will make fun of them.
  • 60% said they were worried that when they are at school, someone is going to hurt their feelings.

Girl Scouts were able to clearly identify acceptable behaviors.

  • Almost 95% said it was wrong to say hurtful things to another person, insult someone, share a secret or say mean things online.

And, girls were direct about the relationally aggressive behaviors that they had used in the past three months.

  • More than 60% had teased or called someone names. Almost half had tried to exclude someone from a lunch table, an activity, a party or from joining a club.
  • More than 40% had purposely ignored someone to hurt their feelings.
  • 20% threatened to not be someone’s friend unless they did what they were told to do.

These girls understood the value of friendships and relationships and were willing to use that as leverage for social position, status and power.

With continued reinforcement of the Girl Scout Promise and Law, we can break the cycle of aggression endured by today’s girls. If you are interested in learning more about the GSNC Friendship Program, visit www.gsnc.org/criticalissues. For more information about the Ophelia Project, visit www.opheliaproject.org.

Resources

Power Up!

Girl Scouts of Colorado has developed this program as a fun and engaging way for girls and adults to get hands-on experience in preventing and combating relational aggression. Power Up! centers on encouraging the 85% of the population who are witnesses to bullying to recognize the strength in those numbers and use it to intervene when they see something wrong.

GSWW is focused on preventing the unique verbal and relational bullying prevalent among girls, so staff members at GSWW are developing opportunities for girls and volunteers based on the Power Up! program. More information will be available soon.

Websites

Stop Bullying Now! 
A wealth of information including tips for parents, educators and kids who are bullies, bullied or bystanders. Also contains video workshops. Sponsored by the Health Resources and Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Bullying on www.girlshealth.gov
A bullying resource for parents, educators and girls, developed by the Office on Women’s Health in the Department of Health and Human Services.  

Books for Adults 

The Unwritten Rules of Friendship
by Natalie Madorsky Elman, Ph.D. and Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D. Simple strategies to help your child make friends, while honoring the personality of your child.  

Generation MySpace, Helping Your Teen Survive Online Adolescence
by Candice M. Kelsey. Explains how social networking is changing everything about friendships, gossip, sex, drugs and children’s values.

Get Out of My Life, But First, Can You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall?
by Anthony E. Wolf. A parent’s guide to the new teenager.