In A Better You, Bullying Tips, Harassment

Let’s Understand Relational Aggression

relational aggression

What is Relational Aggression?

The relational aggression definition is sometimes called “mean girls syndrome.” It is often used to describe the way teenage girls bully and abuse each other using psychological and emotional methods, but not necessarily direct physical attacks. This term of “mean girls”, while certainly applicable for those situations, it is also unnecessarily limiting. It does not include other types of relational aggression, such as these behaviors happening amongst young children of both sexes, similar behaviors found in males, and the relational aggression, which occurs between adults.

Relational Aggression in Young Children

Studies done by Dr. Jamie M. Ostrov, who is director of the Social Development Laboratory at the University at Buffalo, explore the development of relational aggression in early childhood for children between the ages of three to five-years old.

Dr. Ostrov found relational aggression is easily observed in children as young as three years-old. One experiment was able to stimulate the expression of relational aggression. In this experiment, three children were given the task to color some pictures. They had one good color crayon and two useless white crayons to work with. This scenario provoked a display of relational aggression.

The study also found those who are victims of relational aggression at an early age were more likely to become an easy target for similar aggression from peers in the future. By working with a huge set of data from NICHD, the conclusion was relational aggression experienced in the third grade creates loneliness in the child by fifth grade and this predicts the victims of relational aggression in the sixth grade. This work also noted the fact relational aggression is more prevalent in girls than boys. Nevertheless, it is clear relational aggression behavior is not something limited to the psychology of only teen years.

One correlation observed with relational aggression is trouble with the parent-child relationships. This correlation was consistent between older and younger children from the same families. It was also observed, there is a transfer from one child to the other. Children who were victims of relational aggression without intervention, learned this from other children, and began to exhibit more of this behavior themselves.

A surprising result from these research efforts came about from the examination of the effect of exposure to media on the relational aggression behaviors. This part of the study was not the typical study of “Does violence in media create violence in children?” These very young children watched “educational” media, which is designed to teach good behavior and reduce relational aggression behavior. It had exactly the opposite effect. Dr. Ostrov and his team found only 19% of the children understood the moral teaching message in the media stories. They were more likely to imitate the bad behaviors due to misinterpretation of the intended examples.

Three important conclusions came from this work:

  1. Relational aggression is a learned behavior and starts very early in childhood
  2. Parent-child relations are a strong influence
  3. “Educational” media has unintended consequences of promoting relational aggression in young children. Parents need to be cautious of this and either restrict access or watch these programs with the children to make sure they clearly understand the moral message and not just copy bad behaviors they see.

Relational Aggression in Males

Relational aggression is typically associated with pre-teen and teenage girls. PubMed.gov has a report called “Relational aggression, gender, and social-psychological adjustment“ which clearly shows this trend. Nevertheless; most of the studies, which have focused on relational aggression among teenage girls do also mention relational aggression also occurs among teenage boys.

Girls are more manipulative, less overt in their bullying tactics, and more likely to use popularity as a disguise for their very aggressive psychological attacks on other girls. Since relational aggression does not leave behind any physical proof, it is much easier to get away with doing it. However; boys also engage in relational aggression.

Two reasons why relational aggression is more prominent in teenage girls than with teenage boys are:

1) Boys do not report acts of relational aggression as frequently and ;

2) Girls are more concerned about and more hurt by relational aggression than boys.

The problem with these assumptions, is the basis of thinking friendships among boys are less important than friendships among girls. Boys shunned by peers and subject to relational aggression attacks are just as likely to suffer emotional harm as girls.

One place this is extremely clear is when a boy has been labeled a “fag” by other boys. Rumors spread about this boy and these boys often become isolated. The sad part is, the boy’s sexuality may not even yet be determined. They may be more effeminate than others boys or less interested in sports, smaller in stature, or simply shy. Any of these reasons is enough to be labeled a “fag.” Once a boy is labeled as such, relational aggression is in full swing. There may also be an escalation in physical attacks as well, but not necessarily. It is damaging enough to a boy’s self-esteem when no other boy will talk to him, or sit next to him at lunch. In these type of circumstances, there is virtually no difference in gender in regards to expression of relational aggression.

It becomes even more apparent, this gender bias in relational aggression decreases, when boys become men and enter the workplace as adults.

Relational Aggression in Adults

The saying, “It’s a dog eat dog world” as applied to the corporate environment is a sad indicator of the role that aggressive competition plays in the workplace. Many bad behaviors at work, tolerated in the past, are now illegal. None would expect any person in an American work environment today, to be able physically abuse another person and get away with it. This kind of behavior would warrant an immediate call to the police. Sexual harassment may be a bit more subtle; yet it is still illegal. However; when it comes to relational aggression in the workplace, the subtleties are more pronounced and no American laws are yet in place to prohibit this behavior.

Relational aggression in the workplace is a technique used by both males and females to get ahead by putting others down. Workplace bullying which is aggressive and physical is not as effective as relational aggression. According to an article by Express10 entitled “Adult Relational Aggression,” relational aggression is a problem in the workplace because it is covert.

Evidence of relational aggression in the workplace, include:

  • Vicious gossip – Information (whether true or false) spread around to destroy a person’s reputation.
  • Backstabbing – A person first pretends to be a friend, gaining someone’s confidence, in order to get information (delicate and private), which is then used to harm them.
  • Taking False Credit for Work of Others – This typically happens when a mid-level management supervisor asks a subordinate to prepare a work product, such as a report, then claims the work as their own, while prohibiting the employee from having access to upper management where the work is presented.
  • Sabotage – This is intentional destruction of the work efforts of others, a technique used to discredit them.
  • Reputation Attacks – This takes the form of any attack on the person’s reputation, lifestyle, appearance,

Once the aggressor at work starts the campaign of relational aggression, the ultimate goal is to get the victim fired, have them quit, or have their position in the organization so diminished as to make them completely ineffective and no longer a threat.

It is shocking where relational aggression exists in the workplace. One example is shown in the book called “When Nurses Hurt Nurses.” Even in the nursing profession, which has the goal of helping other people, relational aggression is a problem. The tragedy of this phenomena is there is a critical shortage of those willing to take the extensive and difficult training to become nurses. Due to the aging of the American population, nurses are more in demand than ever before.

Part of the effect of workplace relational aggression is the disruption of team efforts. Much wasted energy is focused on the gossip and the discrediting of an individual, especially when relational aggression is engaged in by superiors.

Dealing with Relational Aggression

In every environment, whether it be pre-school, elementary school, high school, university, or the workplace, relational aggression needs to be identified and eliminated. As Dr. Ostrov points out it is fairly easy to identify relational aggression behavior in young children by simple repetitive observation of their interactions. The way children learn about these behaviors is important. Parents are encouraged to participate in teaching children.

When it comes to the workplace, there is a need for further monitoring of interpersonal behaviors to make the transition away from relational aggression behaviors. Many adults subjected to this behavior as children, learned about it from those times, so it becomes more of an awareness issue now in the workplace and an educational issue in schools. Great care needs to be taken to stop perpetuating relational aggression in the future.

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