Recently, the media have highlighted a growing trend among adolescent females referred to as “relational aggression.” Despite the recent increase in media attention, psychologists have been aware of this phenomenon for years.
Essentially, relational aggression refers to the subtle but powerful use of scorning, snubbing, rumor-mongering, threats, “back-stabbing” and sharing others’ secrets in order to control and often destroy a peer’s reputation and status. It is an attempt to manipulate the dynamic interplay between inclusion and exclusion in peer group as a way to either gain popularity/status or undermine someone else’s.
For boys, aggression, bullying and intimidation manifests in visible, obvious ways. Physical threats, pushing, punching, and destruction of property are common. Altercations can often lead to bumps and bruises, and the physical scarring tends to outweigh the psychological scarring.
Girls, on the other hand, tend to express competition and aggression by attacking each other’s popularity and reputations. It is more difficult to see, and much more difficult to prevent. Psychologists feel that the more highly developed social skills in females directs them towards a social form of competition, while the emphasis on sports and strength propels boys toward a more physical forms of competition. We are quick to (justifiably) point out the brutality that is often associated with the outward examples of male violence, but the long term effects of being socially ostracized and having one’s reputation tarnished or destroyed can be devastating for some girls.
Although the manner is different, the reason that both boys and girls engage in their respective dynamics is the same: establishing and maintaining a reputation; asserting control over others; and, achieving a position and status within a social hierarchy. They should also be addressed in similar ways. Unfortunately, this is not so easy. School policy clearly prohibits the use of physical violence. A schoolyard fight that results in a bloody nose has clear school (and legal) consequences. However, there is no specific school policy to address a girl who single-handedly (or with the help of a few others) undermines another girl’s reputation, relationship with a boyfriend, or status within the group by spinning rumors, using subtle gestures, snubbing, or sharing another’s private information.
But it still can be addressed. In school, if a girl’s behavior is not a violation of a specific school policy, it is still addressed by counselors, administrators and teachers. And more importantly, parents can help their children identify the ways in which others establish their status while potentially pulling down the status of others. The more this issue is discussed, the more likely girls will be to protect themselves and maintain respectful, healthy interactions among their peers.