By Stephanie Filio
When I tell people that I work in a middle school, I am often met with cringes (you probably just cringed yourself!). People immediately picture themselves at that particular time in their lives and cannot help but react with dread. As middle schoolers, we were dramatic, we were awkward, we were hormonal, we were confused, we were . . . typical. All these things are what make adolescence both timeless and necessary for growth and development. While in middle school, we need to test-drive personalities and create big social learning moments for ourselves before the stakes skyrocket in adulthood.
The adolescent transition is all about trying to make sense of the growing world while searching for connection and acceptance. Unfortunately, as young students learn new things through trial and error, the confusion during this time often leads to behaviors that are not healthy for relationships and can affect others negatively. Let’s start with a familiar example and break it down:
Taylor has been best friends with Chris since the 2nd grade. When the two boys began middle school in 6th grade, they shared their thoughts on new people, joined debate, and went skating together every weekend.
Now in 7th grade, one day Chris is sick, and Taylor goes to a sleepover without him for the first time. Taylor hears others talking poorly about Chris, but because he doesn’t know these kids well, he stays quiet. They tell Taylor how much fun they are having without Chris there. Taylor is cataloging every word, attempting to conform, and feeling acceptance like never before.
Afterward, Taylor begins worrying that Chris is acting juvenile in front of other peers (like the kids at the sleepover said), and he becomes irritated and embarrassed when Chris is around. He starts to make excuses not to hang out with Chris so he can do things with the other students. Taylor feels bad about leaving Chris out, but is now invested with new friends and preoccupied with tryouts for basketball, which Chris doesn’t like anyway.
Chris continues to come around, but Taylor begins to say mean things to push him away. When Chris cries during lunch one day, Taylor feels bad but doesn’t know how to fix things and also stay active with new friends. Taylor does not want to go back to the way it was in 6th grade when there were fewer friends and everything felt new and scary.
Chris tries to find out what is going on, but Taylor has a hard time talking about it. Instead, he goes on social media and says they are no longer friends. Taylor hopes this will eliminate the stress of trying to manage both worlds.
Watching scenarios like these is like watching that part of a scary movie where the main character checks out a strange noise in the basement. You want to yell warnings at the unassuming victim, but you know the character can’t see the monster like you can! As adults, we know exactly what is going on because we experienced it ourselves and can look back on it with adult eyes. Taylor is struggling with how to handle all the changes and new opportunities, and he finds it easier to denounce the old to make space for the new. Chris becomes collateral damage.
This is an example of adolescents exhibiting hurtful, misguided peer behavior in an effort to find protection and navigate a growing social life. Notice that Taylor felt important when receiving attention from the other students. Young students often have a longing to feel they belong to a large friend group. In keeping up with those new friends, Taylor didn’t know how to communicate with Chris. Chris was desperate to keep a social connection in lieu of advocating for better treatment. If ignored, this story will likely not end here, instead becoming increasingly aggressive.
In situations like this when an aggressor is behaving negatively and the other child feels helpless, both parties will begin to show attention-seeking behavior in an effort to get help. As adults, when we notice negative behaviors and abrupt friendship changes, it is time for us to step in and try to get to the real root of the problem.
What does this look like in a real school setting? If Taylor were at my school, I would likely first notice that he is walking with different people in the hallways and hear from peers that Taylor and Chris are no longer friends. I may notice a more sullen Chris by himself at lunch and in the hallways. At this point, I would likely pull one of the students aside and ask a very general open-ended question (for example, “How are things going?”) to try to ease into unpacking this sensitive situation. Following this, a mediation between Taylor and Chris might work to help mend the friendship. If students are not ready to reconcile, goals can be established separately for each student to help him remain positive and communicate productively. I would also reach out to the parents of both students, making it clear that the boys are not in trouble but that I am seeking clarity to try to help them. I would help the parents sift through what they know to find the details, and we would work through a plan of action for what the family and I will do to support each student. Last, I would respect the space of both students and, while providing a safe space to talk when needed, allow them to work on their issues on their own time. However, if the negative behavior continues or becomes threatening, all bets are off and swift intervention is nonnegotiable.
Types of relational aggression are vast and diverse and can include friendships, relationships, family dynamics, and so on. The overarching theme that ties them all together, however, is that there is a notable struggle for power in which one or more parties feel the need to assert dominance and control a situation aggressively. Taylor could use help learning how to communicate better instead of trying to forcefully change the dynamics of his relationship with Chris, and Chris may need assistance advocating for himself. Teachers, administrators, and parents can best support adolescents by knowing how to mediate situations and assist in the growth of self-knowledge and emotional intelligence.
At this age (or perhaps any age!), most aggressive behavior stems from hurt or a fear of rejection, which can swell and take on a life of its own. Here are some tips and guidelines for helping resolve a situation similar to Taylor and Chris’s:
- Good rapport with students is essential to catching aggressive behaviors early. This includes keenly listening when students talk about social situations for clues about where to focus your attention. If you hear about a problem between friends, talk to other students to gather more information. Students will even find it amusing when you can “guess” what is going on without them telling you!
- Talk with the aggressor privately about what underlying emotions may be causing the behavior. Have there been any changes at home? Are grades consistent, or is there a difficult class? Was there a point when the aggressor felt wronged or left out?
- When meeting with an aggressor, suggest she or he use coping tools such as journaling or belly breathing and take a step back to think about the situation. Teachers can develop a signal to subtly remind the student to use these tools during class when they detect agitation.
- Conduct a mediation between the two students in your presence or that of another supportive adult. Allow both students to express themselves, and seek clarity on the points where you sense that feelings have been hurt. Encourage students to focus their speaking on I-statements (“I felt like . . .”) instead of using accusations.
- When contacting parents to let them know that you have met with their children regarding a mediation, keep the names of other students involved confidential. Tell parents what a great job the students did at communicating their feelings. In most cases, parents will be aware of the social tension. Encourage them to call you with any updates or concerns.
- Keep your principal or other administrator apprised of what is going on, and ensure your administrator knows what methods you have used in working with the students up to that point.
As educators, the best gift we can give is to help students improve self-awareness and foster interpersonal growth. Confident and kind educators model confidence and kindness for their students. Relational aggression often causes lasting damage, so the best way to approach socially hazardous situations with young people is to be proactive and systemically responsive. When students learn to operate positively in their relationships and feel safe to change and grow, relational aggression will decrease as a school climate norm.
Stephanie Filio is a middle school counselor in Virginia Beach. She received her undergraduate degree in interdisciplinary studies from the University of Virginia and her M.Ed. in counseling from Old Dominion University. In a discussion with one of her UVA professors about her desire to stay in school forever, her mentor wisely responded, “If you want to be a lifelong learner, go into education,” and so she found her place. Prior to her 6 years as a school counselor, Stephanie worked in private education, specializing in standardized tests, test preparation, and future planning. She writes about her career and hobbies at her blog, Weekend Therapy, and can be found on Twitter @steffschoolcoun. Stephanie also enjoys spending time with her books, crafts, and family.
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