Getting More Aggressive with Relational Aggression

I thought this article about what’s termed “relational aggression,” “Little Children and Already Acting Mean” in the Wall Street Journal, would be about how preschool and younger elementary school students had gotten meaner, so I was pleasantly surprised to read:

Relational aggression is a relatively new term in psychology, devised to distinguish it from physical aggression. 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.

I highly recommend reading the article in its entirely–it’s well-done and comes at the topic from many angles. As a parent of elementary-school aged children and as someone who taught preschool-aged children for a few years, I have many thoughts on the matter.

First of all, I love having a specific and fitting term for this. I wish I had had it a long time ago. And, while I don’t think children or girls in particular have gotten any meaner, I am glad to see more focus on relational aggression in early childhood education circles. Certainly, laying the foundation for fine and gross motor skills, for literacy, for independence, for academics or subject matter, for self-care is vital but socialization is a major part of all of the above, though, really, none of those groups of skills and knowledge exist in isolation.

While physical aggression has been expected to be addressed right away, relational aggression seemed somehow to be considered largely beyond the educator’s scope; the de-facto approach in many early childhood education settings has seemed to be: let the kids sort it out. I can certainly understand why addressing physical aggression would be paramount, though if you’re talking pre-schoolers, they need to be instructed in this matter not just told it’s wrong “no!” or “stop!”  When my boys were in preschool, I worked for a year for a private non-profit social service agency in Charlottesville, Virginia, as a “push-in” teacher in area Head Start classrooms, teaching a curriculum called Al’s Pals. This curriculum informed my teaching while part of that program, of course, but the approach also influenced my parenting and future teaching as a lead preschool classroom teacher: It’s okay to have strong feelings but it’s not okay to hurt or damage because of them. What can you do instead when you are having those feelings? If there’s a problem that needs solving, hurting won’t solve it. Let’s identify the problem and see if we can come up with a solution. It’s part of teaching younger children to manage strong feelings and to curb the instinct or reflex to lash out physically. It’s normal to have such instincts and feelings–we all do–what matters is how we handle them.

From the article:

Generally thought of as a middle-school phenomenon, relational aggression is less explored among young children. Experts say it often goes under the radar because it is harder to detect than physical aggression. The behavior is similar to verbal aggression but revolves around threatening the removal of a friendship. Examples include coercing other children not to play with someone else or threatening not to invite them to your birthday party if they don’t do what you want them to do.

A few years after Charlottesville, my daughter went to a wonderful little Montessori-based preschool in our current hometown of Ashland, Virginia. It was a co-op and so parents worked one to two times per month assisting the teacher, so it gave me some further experience at the preschool level and  it also allowed me to see first-hand what was happening in my daughter’s classroom. My daughter is very social and positive and plays with pretty much everyone–she is not a cliquey or one-friend-at-a-time kind of person(which is not to say that she or my other children are angels, mind you) but she still experienced exclusion. While my daughter’s overall preschool experience was great, relational aggression did for the most part “go under the radar.” The reluctance to address or even acknowledge relational aggression was disappointing. As with physical aggression, my attitude was to assume the best of her classmates but to assume that they needed to be taught. I found, however, that the approach in this area of the teacher and other parents was to emphasize that “we’re all friends at school”–which is a great thing to emphasize–but otherwise to let the kids work it out.

Certainly navigating exclusion, teasing, and painful social situations is part of growing up and I  have had many conversations with my daughter and sons about this. I tell them:

  •  to assume the best of their friends and classmates and to understand that everyone has their hard days.
  • just because something hurts their feelings doesn’t mean it’s a slight. For example, it may hurt their feelings that Friend A has chosen Friend B as a partner instead of them, but it doesn’t mean such a choice is personal rebuke.
  • they can’t control others’ behavior, they can only control their own behavior and how they respond to others’ behavior.
  • if someone is saying or doing something that feels hurtful, assume the person doesn’t realize that and explain to them that what they are doing or saying hurts your feelings.
  • if explaining your feelings doesn’t work, to seek out playmates and friends who do treat them kindly, find someone to play with who is being kind and who is acting like a good friend. That doesn’t mean that that child who is being unkind isn’t their friend, but it means that at that point, they aren’t acting like a good friend.

My daughter’s preschool experience definitely influenced how I approached relational aggression after. When I became a preschool teacher, I decided to acknowledge and address acts of unkindness and relational aggression, as part of the socialization curriculum. While some children have the tools already, many don’t and not providing them with them is a dis-service.  I do admit that I have a much more hands-on approach both as a parent and as a teacher, perhaps too hands-on, but I feel that it’s better to be safe than sorry and I’ve learned it’s easier to ease off after a while than to ease on. While dealing with painful social situations is part of the learning process, I didn’t want any child or parent to feel that their child was left to sink or swim, that they were just left on their own with the problem. I wanted the children I taught, and their parents, to feel like they were safe and secure. My goal was was to start off with heavy guidance and to gradually ease off and observe as the children attempted to work things out, only intervening when they were having trouble making progress and making sure to praise when a problem was successfully solved. But first, I wanted to instruct them, to give them the tools.

One of my rules was “Use kind and soft voices” (the soft voices did not apply to outside :), meaning you could disagree or dissent but you had to do so respectfully. I don’t think that children should be made to feel they can’t disagree or dissent or speak up when something seems wrong; they just need to do so respectfully (this has been my approach with my middle and high schoolers, too)– I see respectful disagreement as a sign of engagement and critical thinking. I also stole the “we’re all friends at school” mantra, telling children they were welcome to play alone if they wanted to but they couldn’t exclude others while playing in a group. Because the preschool was Montessori-inspired, there were rules inside about which materials could be worked with alone and which with a friend, but issues could still arise.

We focused on empathy, asking, how would you feel if someone said that to you? as the article states,

Mark Barnett, a developmental psychologist at Kansas State University, says affective empathy, or vicariously experiencing the emotions of someone else, is what needs to be encouraged to reduce relational-aggressive behavior. If a child does something negative to someone, the parent should say, “Imagine how it would feel if someone did that to you?” Dr. Barnett also recommends parents and teachers talk about feelings of characters during story time. They also need to model empathetic behavior.

I also worked with the aggrieved, using much of the language and points as I do (see above) with my own children. But I also tried to let the aggressor know that relational aggression was bad for them, too, and might have negative consequences for them down the road. As related in the article, often the children would lash out and go straight to, as the article mentions, you’re not my friend anymore! Are you really not their friend, I would ask? Do you really mean that? I don’t believe that you do. Let’s address the problem that is making you feel upset. I would also address un-kindness in general: What kind of a friend do you want to be? I’d ask. When you speak unkindly, it might give people the impression that you’re not a nice person and maybe someone will decide they don’t want to play with you or be your friend. When you’re kind to others, it makes them feel good about being around you, and it also makes you feel good about yourself. Again, I tried to always make clear that disagreeing or pointing out that something bothered them didn’t make it unkind.

If you’re still here, thanks for sticking with me through this long post. I have spent a lot of time during my parenting and teaching career grappling with all of this and while I have discussed it, I hadn’t as of yet put the thoughts down in writing and it was so nice to read an affirming article. And, it’s not just children who can learn from this; there are adults, too, including me, who can always use help with socialization.


  1. Roger Sweeny says:

    “telling children they were welcome to play alone but they couldn’t exclude others”

    So one child can exclude everyone but two children can’t exclude anyone? That doesn’t seem right to me.

  2. Roger Sweeny says:

    It now says, ” telling children they were welcome to play alone if they wanted to but they couldn’t exclude others while playing in a group.” Does that mean two children is not considered a “group.” How about three? Or do you just look at things on a case-by-case basis? “These three people seem to want to do something that’s best with three people but those three people seem to be trying to hurt that fourth person who they are refusing to play with.”

    Or is “playing in a group” a Montessori term of art that means something like “in an activity whose purpose is the doing, not who you’re doing it with”–and the kids understand that’s what it means?

    • Well, remember that outdoor play was structured differently from indoor activities. Yes, a group would be two or more. There were very few things outside that were suited to just three people, unless you are talking about a swing or trike which only one person at a time could be on. The indoor activities, it was clear to everyone what was for one or two or three. I did address things on a case-by-case basis to a certain extent (you have to as a teacher) but you also have to maintain as much consistency and clarity of guidelines as possible. I actually don’t recall it ever really coming up the way you are describing it. Also, keep in mind, I wouldn’t compel children to change what they were playing to accommodate someone else, like if someone said “he’s not including me because I want to play Frozen and he wants to play dinosaurs” (imagine this is outside), I would suggest seeing if they want to take turns or finding someone who did want to play dinosaurs. As I said below, I could go on and on . . . Part of what I love about teaching is how fascinating all of these dynamics are and the challenge of figuring out ways to make it all work together.

  3. Mark Roulo says:

    I can certainly understand why addressing physical aggression would be paramount, though if you’re talking pre-schoolers, they need to be instructed in this matter not just told it’s wrong “no!” or “stop!”

    Could you please elaborate on why you aren’t supposed to tell pre-schoolers to stop hitting each other? Long ago my son went to a pre-school. At this pre-school, one of the other kids would hit him and knock him down. Most days. The folks running the thing *really* didn’t want to tell the other kid to stop. But I never got a good explanation for why (in theory, it was bad for *my* kid if the other kid was told to stop hitting …). Can you elaborate? Please?

    • Well, I never said that you aren’t supposed to tell preschoolers to stop hitting each other. Of course, I would intervene and address hitting and the like. I said that kids who are physically aggressive should not just (meaning only) be told no, meaning they need to be instructed beyond simply no as to why physical aggression is not safe. They also need help getting at the root of their aggression and learning some strategies for self-control. I would try to find out what caused them to hurt. For example, a child might say, well, she was in my way, so we’d go through what the aggressor could have said or done instead of pushing, like waiting to see if they moved out of the way or saying, “excuse me.” If a child hurt because they were having strong feelings, we ‘d talk about what they could do instead of hurting in those moments (Maybe go to the Breaktime Bench? Maybe talk about it?) I also made sure the child would say “I’m sorry for ____. It was wrong because ___________. Next time I will ___________.” If a child continued to hurt, then they would have to sit out or stay by my side or hold my hand so I could “help them keep themselves and others safe.” I would usually let the parents know, too. There were many ways I addressed and dealt with physical aggression–I could go on and on. . . But it was important to me that every child in my classroom felt physically safe and socially comfortable, and that has been true when I have taught high school and middle school as well.

  4. Warning: rambling comment ahead.

    First – I can’t read the article (paywall) so I might be getting the wrong idea here. It seems to me that there’s a balance that needs to be struck here, and I’m not convinced that focusing on *behaviors* is the right way to strike it.

    Forced association is fine where a group is expected to function *as a group* for some important purpose or another. The military, for example, doesn’t let you choose which element or platoon you’re in. You train and work with THOSE people, and that’s it. And because the unit has to function, you invite that idiot corporal you can’t stand to the BBQ at your place because he’s part of your team.

    But in a school, where kids are learning as a matter of first impression what it means to associate with people, and what it means to make friends, cheapening the value of friendship by forcing association even during recreational “down time” seems to me to be sending the wrong sort of message.

    It’s fine to say that if a kid is going to take advantage of the classroom as a platform to celebrate his or her birthday, then it’s cupcakes for everyone or for no one at all. (Although just TRY bringing cupcakes into some classrooms these days….) And we don’t allow physical aggression because physical aggression is universally recognized to be immoral (and illegal in certain contexts). But there’s nothing inherently *wrong* with saying you don’t want to play with someone. That’s freedom of association. The fact is that the Elks Lodge doesn’t HAVE to give you membership, and the sooner you learn that, the better.

    Now at the same time, you don’t want to allow kids to be outrightly cruel. And teachers are right to punish gratuitous cruelty, and to point out to the perpetrators that what they are doing has no real purpose other than to hurt someone’s feelings, and that’s wrong. That’s why I’m generally OK with rules against so-called non-physical “bullying”.

    I really worry about two things:

    First, the incoherence in telling a kid that he HAS to let someone play with him or that person might decide they aren’t very nice and won’t want to play with him.

    Second, I worry that this will get turned into a weapon by the savvy, popular kids — just like practically every other well-intentioned but not-quite iron-clad rule in existence. When Bert and Ernie, who are generally not that popular, are playing catch in the field, the five popular kids will wield these policies like a bludgeon to force B&E to let them play with them, whereupon it just so happens that B&E get thrown the ball far, far, far less than everyone else.

    What’s more, following the rules themselves can easily be turned into cruelty. Here’s an example from a blog post ( I wrote a while back:

    Sarah, a somewhat shy, unpopular girl, comes out of the cafeteria line and decides (perhaps because it’s the only open seat) to sit down at the table with Megan, Madison, Cassidy, and Jackie — four popular, somewhat cruel girls. As Sarah sits down, all the girls assume obviously fake smiles, and fold their hands in front of them in uniform fashion. Megan says the following to Sarah:

    “Hi Sarah. The rules say that we’re supposed to smile and greet you, and that we can’t exclude you from the table, so on behalf of all four of us, we welcome you to the table. The rules also say that we’re not supposed to get up and move to another table to avoid you. We want to, but we can’t. So it looks like we’ll stay sitting right here until we’re finished with our lunch. The rules also say that we’re not allowed to insult you; isn’t that interesting? Could you please pass the salt?”

    Sarah — traumatized — bursts out crying, drops her tray, and runs out of the cafeteria.

    I think the thing to do there is to punish Megan et al. (or at least reprimand them if they’re really young). But the thing you’re trying to stamp out in this situation really is the cruelty. They *followed* the rules, after all. You can’t punish them for that.

    And that’s where I think we have to keep our eyes, on the cruelty. We shouldn’t worry about how it commonly manifests, or what sorts of things the kids are doing to effectuate it these days. We’re adults, and we can recognize mean-spiritedness fairly reliably.

    Let the kids have their little private games, and let them invite whomever they want to their birthday parties.

    Just don’t let them be jerks about it. Does it take a lot of time and attention to make these sorts of distinctions? Sure. But so does raising children more generally.

    • Michael, You are more than welcome to have your say but it’s very hard for me respond to what you’re saying because many of your comments are based on things I never said in this piece, and on policies I never held as a preschool, or any, teacher, and also on topics (like how to handle seating in school cafeterias) I didn’t address.

      • Michael E. Lopez says:

        Like I said, I was rambling somewhat and responding without having been able to read the actual article.

        I just can’t buy into the notion that “we’re all friends at school.” I think it’s a somewhat wrongheaded and insidious notion, one that debases and cheapens the very idea of friendship at the very time that kids are learning what friendship is.

        Friendship is, by its very existence, an act of exclusion. That I say you’re my friend is to say that you occupy a privileged position with perks and benefits. If you’re my friend, I treat you better than I treat others. I share my snacks with you, and not with others. I do things with you and not with others. I take your part in conflicts, and not the part of others (ceteris paribus). I pick you for my team, and not others.

        I think kids need to be free to do these things, to learn how to negotiate friendships.

        I guess what I’m trying to say is that I think being aware of “relational aggression” is probably a good thing, but the sorts of things I’ve heard out of the anti-bullying crowd make me worry that the solutions are going to be misguided in the ways I’ve discussed. I’m certainly not trying to ascribe those misguided solutions to *you*, Rachel. I’m just stating that there’s a danger here, and that we need to approach this issue carefully.

        • But remember I’m talking about 3 and 4 year olds. The scenarios you are describing involve much older children. I’ve spent a lot of my adult life teaching and then raising and then teaching all of the above. Your concerns are valid but I’m afraid they are misplaced and not as informed as they could be.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            “But remember I’m talking about 3 and 4 year olds.”

            And you treat older children differently. But isn’t a lot of what you do with 3 and 4 years olds things you want them to internalize and continue? Are you actually doing them some damage if you force them to be inclusive? Are you denying them opportunities “to learn how to negotiate friendships” (to quote Michael)?

            Maybe it doesn’t harm 3 and 4 year olds–but would it harm 5 and 6 year olds if the “we are all friends” idea were also enforced in kindergarten and first grade?

  5. Thanks for reading, everyone. Feel free to continue among yourselves but I am not going to participate in a conversation where I am asked to justify things I haven’t said or defend pedagogical practices I don’t engage in. Happy 4th!

    • Perhaps it would help if different levels of friendship were defined. What i see are a lot of kids who only play with their best friend. All others are treated as enemies, who might steal the friend away or, prevent the buddy group from hogging the desired playground equipment. Never do they learn the concept of civility…greeting acquaintances, sharing equipment, talking or working with others, etc. No sense of community is ever formed. The other children are the ‘extras’..on the set because the director insisted, but not to be treated as people with names that could be included. What I am seeing is mostly recent uneducated immigrants, who are training their children in the class system of their home country or of their religious group.

  6. Michael illustrates how subtle bullying can be, and how difficult the decisions are that are required when an authority tries to control “relationship aggression”. This might be an impossible job for a genius, but most teachers and especially the school administrators I have known were far from geniuses. The principals of the elementary and junior high schools I attended some 50 years ago were not even competent to stop assault and battery. I’d really hate to see what they would do if required to try to stop kids snubbing other kids. And from everything I’ve seen, school administration has only become worse since then. People who impose “zero tolerance” rules would make a right mess of trying to counter subtle nonphysical bullying, even if they aren’t inclined to side with the bullies.

    Some teachers would do better. The school system I went to had many excellent ones, although too many of them were close to retiring. OTOH, I remember two that would not do well at all at this. One had clearly given up on doing any more than keeping the class quiet 20 years before. Then there was my sixth grade teacher, high strung, inexperienced, and not much smarter than the average sixth grader – thrown to a difficult class with apparently no support, she finished her first and only year of teaching in a mental institution. Finally, two decades later when my son was having problems in fourth grade, I talked to the teacher, I talked to the principal, and there were clearly two problems: The teacher was just out of college and not as smart as half her students, and they knew it. The principal wasn’t trying to accomplish anything but to make it to retirement with no murders among the students.