By Amanda C. Symmes, LICSW
Some days I find “Notes to the Counselor” scrawled on recycled scraps of paper and stuffed into a box outside my office. These notes, usually authored by girls, hold genuine pain that graphite cannot contain:
Dear Ms. Symmes,
Jill and Dasia won’t talk to me anymore. We used to all be best friends, but now they keep whispering about me, and when I try to talk to them, they roll their eyes and walk away. They also said I cannot be in their group for the social studies project anymore and I don’t know what to do! Please help!
Other days, I open my office door to find someone who has left lunch crying because she cannot “handle the drama anymore.” She tells me, “Leilani posted a duet with me on Musically, and then Cece said in the comments that I was so ugly and why would Leilani even want to sing with me. I texted Cece about it, and she tried to say her account was hacked and she didn’t say it, but I know she did. When I Facetimed her later, she said I never cared about our friendship in the first place and hung up on me. And now today, she is telling people not to talk to me because I am a liar!”
What Is Relational Aggression?
Relational aggression is often referred to as “girl drama.” (While this can be something that impacts boys as well, boys more often engage in physical aggression.) According to the National Association of School Psychologists, relational aggression is defined as “harm within relationships that is caused by covert bullying or manipulating behavior.” Essentially, power is derived from negatively utilizing the space between individuals (the relationship) to manipulate and/or cause damage, thereby gaining power over another person or people.
How to Spot It
In order to address relational aggression, we need to know what we are looking for. Examples of this behavior include:
- keeping someone out of a group
- attempting to split friendship groups or forcing friends to “pick sides”
- laughing and talking about peers (often combined with denial: “We weren’t laughing or talking about you.”)
- sarcastic comments passed off as jokes (“I was just kidding!”)
- repeating negative comments or gossip (“I thought she should know what was said about her.”)
- exaggerations that are unfair and elaborate
- turning away from someone
- saying things like “Ugh” or “Eww” near another peer
- disgusted tone of voice
- looking another person up and down in a judgmental way
- inauthentic compliments
- refusing to sit with someone
- rude comments disguised as helpful suggestions
- passing notes
- ignoring someone or pretending the person isn’t there
What Drives It?
As a school counselor in an elementary school, I see relational aggression often, and it breaks my heart because it can be so damaging and ways to fix it often feel elusive. Since all behavior has meaning, it is important that we take the time to dive deeper into this particular issue. I usually consider the child’s circumstances: Is his or her home happy and safe? What are the relationships like in the family? Does the student struggle with low self-esteem, anxiety, or another mental health or academic challenge? Often a correlation can be found.
However, beyond this, we must not be afraid to wade down deeper into the thick soil of our collective truth: Our school cultures are microcosms of the larger culture within which they are contained. There is evidence of toxic relational landscapes all around us; the messages are evident in our media and our government. Our kids are watching. And manipulation and humiliation in an attempt to strip someone of his or her power happens, often with little accountability. So, yes, our schools will reflect that.
But There Is Hope!
I am happy to share that while addressing relational aggression feels daunting, we can and are making progress:
- The first step in solving any problem is recognizing it. I think we have finally begun this. We can more effectively see what we are looking at and all the nuanced ways in which relational aggression manifests. Watch for those “How to Spot It” signs, and make sure relational aggression is part of any anti-bullying lessons you conduct with students so they can learn to spot it too.
- The second step is naming it. I appreciate not having to call it “girl drama” (a belittling and unhelpful term in my opinion). Identifying the problem as relational aggression moves the focus away from girls being the problem and shifts it onto behaviors being the problem. Seeing relational aggression as a thing outside of them, girls can then make a choice to engage in it or not.
- The third step is talking about it. And we are. Through talking about things bravely and carefully, we develop awareness. Let’s be more vulnerable in this dialogue. I recommend that educators attend seminars and workshops on the topic, which can help you recognize relational aggression and teach you strategies to address it. (I attended this excellent seminar presented by Developmental Resources.) You can also address the topic in teacher and staff meetings. We need to prioritize this conversation.
Being the Change
Whether you are a parent, a teacher, a paraprofessional, an administrator, or a school counselor, you can take an active role in making change:
- Talk about relational aggression with students. Use real examples (without names) and scenarios that kids can relate to.
- Teach empathy and perspective taking.
- Practice self-advocacy and conflict resolution.
- Validate that this is complex and hard.
- Emphasize that at any time we can choose to interrupt these negative patterns by being kind, walking away, choosing not to repeat gossip, calling out the behavior, or talking about it.
- Have big conversations led by kids.
- Teach students about power over and power between. (Kids are smarter than we think about this sort of thing! Illustrate how one person can seize power to make decisions that impact many, as well as situations where “the many” decide together how they will function and what will happen next.)
- Model power between with circle time conversations where all voices matter.
- Begin to take notice of your own relational behaviors. (Notice how you communicate with your colleagues while kids are watching.)
- Talk about mistakes you’ve made in relationships, what you learned, and how you changed.
Talking Over It
Even though I actively teach lessons intended to reduce relational aggression, I still see it. At times this is frustrating, but I realize progress always takes time. So in the meantime, I continue to talk over these things. To me, “talking over it” means addressing incidents of relational aggression when (or right after) we see them. Use real examples from kids’ lives to help them understand what’s happening and offer ways they can end it. Some of the messages I have offered when talking over it include:
- “You will never regret being kind.” I usually expand on this and tell kids that they may go home and wish they had not said or done something that day, but that they will never regret choosing kindness and can always feel good about that choice.
- “Thoughts are not facts.” Teach kids about how thoughts influence feelings and feelings influence behaviors. While this is a clinical idea, it doesn’t have to be overly complicated to teach. We can teach that a negative thought—for example, “She thinks I am ugly”—can easily lead to feelings such as sadness or anxiety, and, in turn, these feelings can lead to dysfunctional behaviors like avoiding the person we think dislikes us, acting without confidence, or lashing out at that person. Once kids understand this, teach them that they can interrupt this cycle by telling themselves that thoughts are not always facts and that they can find more rational thoughts to focus on instead. This thinking skill has proved to reduce relational difficulties.
- “Did that make the problem bigger or smaller?” I use this when kids defend their dysfunctional relational behavior by saying it had a noble purpose: “I just had to tell her what so and so said about her. She needed to know.” When you encounter gossip or retaliation, name it and remind students that sometimes just sitting with the issue and letting it stay the size it is, rather than feeding it so it grows, can be a powerful choice.
- “Just because it is your own opinion or thought does not mean it needs to be shared out loud.” This is another one I use when children impulsively say whatever it is that occurs to them and use the argument that they are “entitled to their opinion” to justify hurtful behavior. Recently I have seen kids stopping themselves from letting out unnecessary opinions, and I always do my best to let them know I see their efforts.
- “You are not a bad kid, you made a bad choice.” Often when children are disciplined for relational aggression, shame sets in, and that can fuel more of the same type of behavior. It’s important to talk over this in a way that helps students separate who they are from what they did and feel supported to make choices that align with who they wish to be.
Beyond these incident-specific tips, it’s also a good idea to talk about social media. Different kids have different levels of supervision regarding their social media use, so it is always important to discuss the dangers. But more importantly, don’t be afraid to talk about the positive things that the internet can offer too. Challenge kids to find inspirational, creative, interesting, or funny things to share with one another. Teach them to make their relational online spaces happy and positive, and teach them to keep these spaces that way.
It can be interesting and educational to find clips of relational aggression taking place in movies and television shows and “talk over” those too. Students will likely be more comfortable identifying relational aggression in situations that are removed from their own, so use these examples to generate dialogue and self-reflection.
Connection Is the Antidote (Always)
Because relational aggression is so complex and layered, we have to be willing to sit with the fact that there is no simple solution. Relationships require us to be brave, vulnerable, and honest. When we are, our authenticity grows. And when we are out of touch with our authentic selves (or allow our children to be), aggression spills into our relational spaces. The antidote to this toxicity is and always will be connection. Connection matters. Children thrive when they feel connected to those around them. Connection is what allows us to feel whole, valued, and strong enough to make better choices.
Connection is the DNA of relationships, and it is what creates a sturdy foundation so we can make hard changes.
Finding Our Power
By really talking with kids, we can help them feel like they are seen, heard, and cared for. Dig deep to find something unique with each child. Be delighted about whatever that something is. Ask more questions. Seek them out to follow up on it. We need to be genuinely excited to see and hear from children. Once this connection is established, children will feel the quality of this connective tissue and be more capable and willing to create it with others around them. Relational aggression seeks power over, so in order to dismantle it, we must light up one another with connection so that we may all choose to embrace the power between.
Amanda C. Symmes, LICSW, is a social worker currently serving as a school adjustment counselor in Haverhill, Massachusetts. She adores her work with children and is continually amazed by the talented and caring staff she is surrounded by each day. Aside from her work family, Amanda lives with her supportive husband and three kids (ages 16, 13, and 6) and enjoys spending time with them taking in all the beauty and wonder in the world while at the same time “talking over” the nonsensical parts of life.
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