How to Spot the Sneaky Signs of Relational Aggression

Relational aggression that leaves a child feeling the most humiliated often occur during recess or other time when teachers can't see it.

An eight-year-old girl feels like she’s alone in school. Her friends are no longer friends. Not only that, they tease and taunt her in a quiet kind of way more often than not. She tries to ask for help at times, but she struggles because the things she needs help with are hard to identify. What she describes to me sounds a lot like relational aggression on the part of her former peer group, and the instances that leave her feeling the most humiliated all occur when the teachers can’t see it.

During lunch, for example, her peers sit with her for a moment before declaring (in loud voices and with exaggerated body language), “Oh my god that lunch is the most disgusting thing ever! Who would want to sit here?” When she retreats to a quiet part of the recess yard with her sketchbook and pencils, they follow her and make comments about how she’s sitting alone. In the classroom, they whisper and point behind notebooks. This is third grade, and this young girl no longer wants to attend school.

Relational aggression can be difficult to spot, which means it can go unchecked for quite some time before adults intervene. It is often viewed as “girl drama” or becomes a “she said/she said” debate with no real resolution, which doesn’t help the victim or the aggressor. Many girls attempt to simply get through it for long periods of time before they seek help for fear of making the situation worse or being told to just walk away.

The truth is that relational aggression can come with some long-term consequences. Relational aggression has been observed in kids as young as preschool, and is linked with the following:

  • School refusal or school absences
  • Mental health problems (depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts)
  • Headaches and stomachaches
  • Academic problems
  • Behavioral problems
  • Substance abuse
  • Eating disorders

What is relational aggression?

Relational aggression occurs in many forms, including use of technology. While relational aggression was once restricted to note passing and rumor spreading, these days very young girls are walking around with technology in their pockets, and a single group text can wreak havoc on the victim.

The Ophelia Project, a nonprofit organization with expertise in relational aggression defines it as, “harming others through purposeful manipulation and damage of their peer relationships.” According to data collected by the Ophelia Project, relational aggression most often occurs in the following settings:

  • 55% see relational aggression during recess or break time
  • 52% in the cafeteria
  • 42% in the hallways
  • 37% on the way home
  • 36% in the restrooms
  • 36% in the classroom

Relational aggression includes gossip and rumors, public humiliation, building alliances, social exclusion, and taunting. Those are general categories, but your daughter is likely to describe any of the following:

  • Rumors spread in person, by note passing, through text message, or online
  • Cruel comments about appearance
  • Using demeaning gestures behind another girl’s back
  • Mean-spirited sarcasm in public places
  • Gossip
  • Creating alliances to leave one girl out
  • Using alliances to “get revenge” on another girl
  • Inventing conflicts or grievances to shun another girl
  • Approaching the teacher first to gain support
  • Making a joke of hiding or stealing personal property
  • Leaving notes or using technology to make cruel jokes and get other kids in on the joke
  • Mean spirited “pranks” followed by “JK!” (Just kidding)
  • Whispering about another girl while making eye contact
  • Using lies and confidential information to get others mad at one girl
  • Requiring girls to drop a certain friend to gain inclusion in a group
  • Not inviting certain girls to an event and talking about it in public
  • Using clothing to establish cliques and leave others out
  • False compliments while bashing that person behind her back
  • Getting someone to spill their secrets and then using them to humiliate her

Watch for these sneaky signs of relational aggression

Given that relational aggression is often sneaky and occurs in low supervision areas of the school during break times, it helps to know a few signs that might indicate that your daughter is being victimized. Even the most talkative kids with very trusting relationships with their parents tend to go quiet when relational aggression occurs. If you notice behavioral changes and your daughter appears to be pulling away from her friends or isolating, consider relational aggression. Watch for these changes in your daughter:

  • Anxious or nervous behaviors
  • Frequent psychosomatic complaints such as stomachaches, headaches, muscle aches, or other unexplained illnesses
  • Talks about sitting alone at lunch or being alone at recess a lot
  • Appears withdrawn or depressed
  • Change in academic performance
  • Acting out at home and/or in school
  • Talks about being hated, disliked, or alone
  • Shares thoughts of death or makes statements about suicide (including vague statements such as “no one would miss me”)
  • Engages in self-harm behaviors (cutting)
  • Changes in sleeping habits
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Avoiding social interaction, including after school sports and activities

If you suspect that your daughter is the victim of relational aggression, a good first step is to ask her about her friendships and listen carefully to the answers. It’s natural for friendships to go through ups and downs, but patterns of behavior point to a bigger issue.

Published on: January 29, 2018
About the Author
Photo of Katie Hurley
Katie Hurley, LCSW, is a child and adolescent psychotherapist, parenting expert, and writer. She is founder of “Girls Can!” empowerment groups for girls between the ages of 5 and 11 and the author of The Happy Kid Handbook and No More Mean Girls.
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