When first mentioned, people might think relational bullying has something to do with family members picking on each other. Most folks who come from big families can remember siblings going at it or cousins who saw each other frequently getting into squabbles. In reality, however, relational bullying has nothing to do with inter-family fighting. Instead, it has to do with childhood bullying and how little kids quickly attack each other with mental behavior, starting very early at lower grade levels.
Where and When Relational Bullying Starts
Girls are far more prone to begin relational bullying on each other because, unlike boys, they are expected to learn and use their mental skills at negotiation and communication faster. This cultural difference in upbringing begins what is known as the schoolyard drama that every parent of a little girl becomes familiar with by the second grade at the latest and as early as kindergarten in some cases.
Unlike traditional bullying, the relational type is not overt or active. It instead manifests in passive ways that usually involve peer and group behavior. Typical behaviors can and usually do include:
- The Silent Treatment – This occurs when a tight group purposefully ignores an outsider despite any attempts to communicate. The targeted child could try to strike up a conversation, play in the same game, ask questions, or similar. Instead of responding, the group pretends like the target child doesn’t exist. It becomes game to the group, but to the child who experiences the shut out behavior it can be very painful and mentally harmful.
- Exclusion – This type of behavior is a bit more overt than the silent treatment in that a group flat out makes it clear a targeted child can have no interaction, role or participation with the group. The group will often be overt in its position any time the targeted child gets near or wants to communicate in any form. Group members can be quite petty in the behavior, finding strength in numbers when multiple children exclude a targeted child at the same time.
- Indirect Attacks with Gossip – Unlike the above two, gossip is often what is associated with the “drama” factor among school-age children. This involves the spreading of gossip, made up stories, lies, rumors and other information probably known to be false or half-true. As the misinformation spreads, the targeted child finds out about the misinformation from multiple sources and gets put on the defensive trying to put out relational fires from every angle. In the meantime the group then sits back and watches the damage they’ve created.
- Taunting and Insults – This overt approach is probably the most traditional version of school bullying where a group of kids target an individual and call him or her names. They are tempting the child to blow up and get angry, and then they take humor in achieving an emotional outburst. The taunting is often led by a leader who is backed up by followers. The targeted child feels conflicted, not wanting to hit back or break rules but also feel cornered by a group and threatened to action. Many young children respond that they don’t know what to do in such instances and stay silent because they don’t want to get in trouble from a teacher for defending themselves and yelling or hitting back. Such taunting also includes threats by the other children that they will tell the teacher the victim was the troublemaker if he or she says anything as well, compounding the frozen victim syndrome.
- Conditional Friendship Terms – This type of bullying is hard to find and stop because the victim often goes along with it to be accepted. Then the bully gets the victim to do something that will get her in trouble or is demoralizing. The bully laughs and continues because the victim child will repeatedly subject to conditions just to be part of “the group.” The pressure of feeling part of a group is far stronger on the victim then the risk or insult of the condition.
For adults relational bullying is a hard behavior to understand. Men traditionally don’t experience the relational problems near as much as children as bullying is far more direct as boys. There is usually a bigger child that physically tries to dominate the others with followers until someone stands up and shows that size isn’t a perfect type of power. As a result, fathers often find themselves confused by why girls get themselves into as many issues as they do with other girl students.
Women see the relational problems of their children as flashbacks to their own experiences in school. If they were part of a group, then the drama is simply part of understanding the popularity rules of the game and how to win. If they were the victim, they strive to teach their children to be part of groups for defense and to avoid being singled out. Neither gender usually approaches the relational bullying the right way.
The victim in relational bullying has just as much a significant role in the event as the bully group. This is because, in many cases, the victim feels that being part of a popular group is more important and has significant mental value. As a result, being alone or separated is seen with a negative perspective, even if it may be the safer route to follow. As a result, victims will often exhibit behavior that makes no sense to parents such as staying quiet when a teacher sees the problem and asks, going back for more abuse, being willing to be insulted and denigrated to be in a group, and being willing to accept conditional terms of acceptance. And many times the behavior comes from other children whom the victim labels as “friends.” Ergo, parents feel like they are often being caught up in the drama of a silly playground soap opera, and their child should just grow a backbone and walk away from whoever is causing the hurt.
The behaviors and how to talk to each other in a relational setting often come from households and home versus other children. Many kids emulate behavior that they see and hear from their parents, their household, and especially the TV. Kids are far more exposed to adult matter and conversational content through the television than most people realize. And then they turn around and apply those statements, behaviors and actions to each other on the school yard. The dynamics of social politics and popularity start very early, far earlier than junior high and the teen years when people thing hormones are driving the odd behavior.
Most disturbing is when children see negative behavior become successful at home with adults. This can happen through instances of threat, coercion, verbal tone, conditional terms and more. Kids then turn around and use the same tools on each other at school, often having serious impacts on each other without realizing what they are really doing.
There are number of steps parents can take to deal with relational bullying that can be very effective. These include the following:
- Break Up the Power of the Single Group – Parents should put teachers and school counselors on notice when a particular single group becomes dominant in a classroom. The teachers and counselors should then be encouraged to start multiple groups and break up the single one to dilute its social power. This can be in the classroom, the school yard or on the school team.
- Model the Right Behavior – Parents are the key teachers of their children, so they have to model the right behavior in front of their kids. It can be hard when dealing with different age children or when having a marriage squabble, but this core value has to be remembered when it matters the most. Kids copy what they see from authority figures as well as the TV.
- Teach Empathy – Children who understand the value of empathy early on tend to see the multiple sides and values of different people versus just connecting with the popular groups. The adapt better to challenges, and they work better with kids of all types.
- Educate on Bullying – Children who are told that a particular type of behavior is wrong repeatedly realize that if they themselves commit that action, they will get in trouble. The more emphasis there is put on bullying prevention at home and school, the more kids are likely to avoid it versus commit those acts.
- Developing Confidence - Children who have a strong sense of self don’t fall victim as easily to bullying. They identify the behavior quickly, and they know how to remove themselves from the situation or push back strong, much to the surprise of the bully. They don’t freeze up from fear, and they often minimize the bully in front of his or her followers, which challenges the power dynamic. The bully will often stay away from that child because confrontation just shows the bully’s weaknesses more and more to followers.
Relational bullying doesn’t have to be an ambiguous mystery for parents and children. It is, unfortunately, part of learning social skills that carry forward to adulthood, but the lessons don’t have to be painful. Understanding how to stop elements from growing, and how to teach a child to be confident often helps overcome much of the potential damage.