13 Sep

Playground or battleground? Educational psychologist Janet George uncovers the hidden nature of relational aggression.

As parents, we hope our children engage in lasting, healthy friendships built on trust, loyalty, honesty and mutual respect. However, while friendships should be a source of support and happiness, they can shift and become fraught with conflict and power struggles.

While it is normal for friendships to experience the occasional spat, with most issues easily resolved, some friendships can become toxic. In these cases, it is important to recognise the signs and intervene early in an effort to limit the emotional impact. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for your child’s friend to morph into their bully, with the “friendship” becoming unhealthy and ultimately destructive.

Despite efforts to root it out of the classrooms and playgrounds, bullying remains a pervasive element within schools. But what we sometimes don’t realise, is that bullying can manifest in different ways. Bullying is often associated with the archetypal push or shove, but can exhibit in other ways like gestures, hurtful words and statements. These insidious acts are not confined to the school environment or amongst schoolchildren, and can often permeate our work and social spaces as well.

The bottom line is, schools find it challenging to address bullying, while parents find it difficult to adequately censor their child, if they are the bully, or support their child if they are the victim. In the real world, most children experience acts of bullying by friends during their school years, which could impact their self-image and beliefs about friendship.

In my experience, having worked within co-ed and single-sex schools, covert bullying – or relational aggression as it is often termed – is more prevalent amongst girls. Bestselling author and girl advocate Rachel Simmons suggests that girls often do not display their anger through physical aggression, but rather resort to non-verbal and indirect aggression. While on the surface we witness friends engage with appropriate civility, beneath the surface often lies strategic ploys of exclusion, gossip, cyber-sent rumours and hostility, often turning friendships conflictual, which can be emotionally and mentally damaging to the victim.

As these behaviours are mostly subtle, teachers and parents are often unaware that these tensions exist, making intervention difficult. Unfortunately, these acts often trigger a child to lose confidence and diminishes their desire to attend school. You may also witness a gradual or sudden drop in grades, loss of interest in activities, anxiety, depression, or even suicidal ideation amongst those children badly affected by this type of bullying.

As parents and teachers, we need to find a balance between shrugging off this behaviour as “girl drama” or downplaying it as “girls being mean”, and waging war against the offender. Ultimately, we cannot be an ever-present shield, but we can provide the tools and support required to build a resilient and independent child.

We should be sensitising children both to their own behaviour, and that of others, thereby ensuring the desired behaviour is affirmed. The recognition that words and actions hold meaning, that they can be used as a positive force, or a tool that can cause hurt and pain, is important in ensuring we effect positive behaviour changes amongst our children.

How do we do this?

The ability to identify relational aggression is imperative: Gossip and rumour-spreading are common forms of relational aggression that children (and even adults) engage in without thinking about this impacts the victim. Bullies often thrive on drama and unrest and will use gossip and negativity to elicit a desired response. This can be difficult to contain with often numerous and alternative accounts of stories. Distancing oneself both physically and emotionally can be an effective strategy, while raising particularly hurtful and damaging rumours with school staff and parents is often required.

Schools need to ensure that staff are well-informed about the nature of relational bullying and provide platforms for children to engage with them about friendships and incidents of relational aggression. Adults can be supportive by teaching girls (and boys for that matter) practical strategies for expressing anger in constructive ways and to recognise incidents of relational aggression disguised as friendship. Most importantly, we must refuse to accept that “mean girl” behaviour is unavoidable.

Encourage healthy friendships: Encourage children to choose friends who are affirming, who listen to them and treat them well. Talk to them about what constitutes a healthy friendship – to espouse values that are important in a friendship. Encourage honesty, trust (unless safety is an issue) and kindness. Your child’s ability to temper their reactions and reflect should be developed over time.

Address issues early and intervene: There should be consequences for bullying, with the ultimate goal of modifying behaviour. Interventions within schools should focus on promoting pro-social behaviour, thereby creating warm and inclusive school environments as well as empowering bystanders to act against bullying incidents. Both teachers and parents can, individually, affirm kind and compassionate behaviour, which is the bedrock of a healthy friendship.

Of course, a parent’s ability to effectively deal with relational aggression can be complicated when we have our own friendships with the parents of the bully or when our children fail to disclose the issues they face at school. Teachers themselves have to adopt a pragmatic approach and can often only respond to what they observe in class, which is usually confined to classroom or playground flare-ups.

The opportunity and ability of children to communicate is key, with space provided for your child or student to raise issues and express their feelings. This allows for self-reflection and an opportunity to offer support and guidance. No child is immune to bullying, so it is important that we engage our children on this issue in an effort to sensitise, build resilience and encourage the adoption of appropriate behaviour. Schooling and the friendships made during this period can and should be a positive experience, with the role of teachers and parents important in ensuring that convivial playgrounds don’t turn into battlefields.



Contact Janet on jgeorge@dgc.co.za.

Janet George is an educational psychologist at Durban Girls’ College and has many years’ experience in working with learners of all age groups.

Useful resources: Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture Of Aggression In Girls by Rachel Simmons; No More Mean Girls – The Secret To Raising Strong, Confident And Compassionate Girls by Katie Hurley.




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