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Tiny tyrants: Even preschoolers exclude, withhold friendship, bully

Published: Thursday, May 29 2014 4:20 a.m. MDT

Bullying can begin as young as age 3, and girls are more likely to do it than boys. It's called "relational aggression," according to the Wall Street Journal, and experts are trying to figure out how to head it off.

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Bullying can begin as young as age 3, and girls are more likely to do it than boys. It's called "relational aggression," and experts are trying to figure out how to head it off, according to the Wall Street Journal.

"Relational aggression is a relatively new term in psychology, devised to distinguish it from physical aggression," said the WSJ article. "There is no research showing that relational aggression is increasing or manifesting itself earlier, experts say. An increasing awareness of it, however, may be what's fueling educators' perception that it is starting earlier and becoming more common."

The National Association of School Psychologists, in a bulletin directed at teachers, offers a definition and a warning about the potential harm: "Relational aggression refers to harm within relationships that is caused by covert bullying or manipulative behavior. Examples include isolating a youth from his or her group of friends (social exclusion), threatening to stop talking to a friend (the 'silent treatment'), or spreading gossip and rumors by email. Relational aggression tends to be manipulative or subtle, and may not appear as typically aggressive behavior. In the past, relational aggression was viewed as a normal part of the process of socialization. However, evidence suggests that relational aggression may create just as much or more damage than physical aggression among youth … and should be considered an important focus on bullying."

The paper also offers insights for spotting children who are relationally aggressive.

Charisse Nixon, chairwoman of the psychology department at Penn State Erie, told WSJ that relational aggression grows along with kids, "often peaking in middle school." She said girls may see it as more damaging to their relationships and social position.

"Dr. Nixon's research has found that an average of 50 percent of children and adolescents — grades five through 12 — have experienced relational aggression at least monthly. About 7 percent of children report experiencing physical aggression on a daily or weekly basis," wrote WSJ's Sumathi Reddy.

Nixon noted that children who exclude others and otherwise bully them may have other behavioral issues and that there are links, as well, to health problems, including depression and anxiety.

A number of researchers have studied relational aggression among very young children, including Jamie M. Ostrov, associate professor of psychology and director of the Social Development Laboratory at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, who covered the topic in a science brief for the American Psychological Association.

"We have been primarily focused on early childhood (i.e., 3-5-year-olds) in order to understand how these behaviors emerge. Some additional prototypical examples of relational aggression during this developmental period include: 'You can’t come to my birthday party,' and 'You can’t play with us,’ ” he wrote last year, focusing on the role of media in development of aggression among young kids. "Interestingly, during early childhood, we find that these behaviors can be sophisticated (e.g., malicious secret spreading), but they are often rather direct/overt, based on the here and now, and with the identity of the perpetrator usually always known."

Nixon has been affiliated with The Ophelia Project, a resource that was dedicated to promoting understanding of relational aggression and practical steps to combat it. The project website said that "aggression is most common in locations where time is less structured," including lunchrooms, hallways and on the way home, among others.

The project formally closed down in 2012, but continues to offer downloadable materials. It also offers a robust page with links to anti-bullying resources.

Email: lois@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Loisco

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