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Mean girl behavior. Can Kidpower help with that?”

Parents and teachers regularly contact Kidpower with some version of this question as they look for ways to address hurtful behavior that doesn’t involve physical aggression or direct threats and name-calling. They often don’t have a name for the problem, other than the unfortunate misnomer “mean girl behavior.”

“Social aggression” or “relational aggression” are terms commonly used by researchers and other professionals with expertise about this kind of behavior, which occurs among people of any gender, not just girls. Kidpower supports adults and youth, regardless of gender, in learning how to:

  • Acknowledge and name the problem
  • Use non-gendered terms to define it
  • Strengthen adult/youth communication about problems, solutions, and interpersonal communication and safety skills
  • Address social aggression with a “skill and responsibility” approach rather than a “shame and blame” approach
  • Build skills and ‘walk the talk’ to support social-emotional safety, in person or in social media/online

This article is a brief overview of key points in each of those areas. Everything in this article relates to aggression experienced in person as well as online, including in social media and in video games.

These are broad subject areas with an infinite number of possible examples reflecting different ages, life situations, and places, real world or online; please contact us at safety@kidpower.org for more information or to ask specific questions related to the challenges you are facing!

Acknowledge and Name the Problem

Kidpower students of all ages often seem to let out a sigh of relief when we tell them that this kind of behavior is real, recognized, and named. Without being able to name and talk in a matter-of-fact way about a problem they face, people can feel isolated and possibly even worried that they are personally responsible: “Why is this happening only to me/my child? Is it happening because of something wrong about me/my child?”

“Relational aggression” is a term describing behavior that is hurtful but does not involve overtly physical or verbally threatening. A useful definition is, “Harming others through purposeful manipulation and damage of peer relationships” (Crick and Grotpeter, 1995). Examples include shunning and spreading rumors or lies.

“Social aggression” describes the same behaviors but reaches more broadly to include gossip and also nonverbal communication, such as facial expressions or gestures, that show contempt or disregard. A useful definition is “actions directed toward damaging others’ friendships, self-esteem, or social status” (Galen & Underwood, 1997).

These behaviors may or may not be part of bullying. “Aggression” and “bullying” both describe behavior intended to hurt or harm, but bullying is commonly understood to be repeated behavior. Aggression can describe a single act. It can occur in person or in social media/online. Repeated social aggression directed at a specific target would also be called bullying.

For simplicity, we will use the broader term ‘social aggression’ in this article. Families, schools, and other groups can develop effective communication and strategies using either term to define their group’s experience. No matter what term you choose to use to describe it, this kind of behavior is hurtful and damaging to individuals as well as to the well-being of the group overall. Young people struggling in isolation to deal with it can suffer significant harm with lasting consequences.

Physical aggression is often easier for adults to spot and is usually harder for them to deny. When kids are bruised or bleeding, adults are confronted with hard evidence of a problem, and other people can see the same evidence. Social aggression can feel like an invisible smoke or gas: people feel pain or discomfort but can experience it in a more isolated way. It might be felt deeply by many without being openly acknowledged by anyone.

Young people deserve kind, blame-free adult guidance in recognizing social aggression in their own behavior as well as in the behavior of others. They deserve support in making wiser choices as well as in building skills to protect themselves and to get help effectively when faced with acts of social aggression.

In addition, when adult leaders make emotional safety as much of a priority as physical safety, schools, families, and other groups develop safer, more positive social climates.

Use Non-Gendered Terms to Define the Problem

Finding apparent proof that “relational aggression” is “mean girl behavior” – a gendered phenomenon – is easy. A simple online search will pull up websites that equate the terms, implying they are one and the same. Popular media often plays up the ‘mean girl’ concept.

This is misleading. Research currently does not show that relational aggression is primarily associated with girls. As stopbullying.gov’s 2015 blog post “The Myth of ‘Mean Girls’” concludes, “While data from the U.S. Department of Education shows some differences between how boys and girls experience bullying – for example, girls were more likely than boys to report experiencing verbal bullying and rumor-spreading –, several large cross-cultural studies and meta-analyses have found no gender differences in relational aggression.”

Adults who believe social aggression is inherent to girls might see socially aggressive actions of girls as proof that it’s girl behavior — rather than as anecdotal examples of social aggression that happen to involve girls. They might miss crucial signs of social aggression affecting the boys in their care because they don’t expect social aggression from boys. They might fail to see opportunities for learning and for change that could enhance safety and quality of life for all youth of any gender in their care.

If adults harbor a bias that social aggression is inherent to girls – something inevitable about their nature or biology – they might conclude that going through these kinds of problems is an unavoidable problem of growing up female, something that just has to be ‘gotten through.’ Their leadership might end up focusing on endurance and avoidance rather on helping all young people build a broader range of social-emotional skills.

Gender very likely affects the expression of aggression. But, more research is needed before anyone can be confident about how or why. In the meantime, adults will be more effective guiding youth in their care by looking beyond gender to the behavior of individuals and providing the guidance and social-emotional and safety skill coaching those individuals most need, regardless of their gender.

Strengthen Adult/Youth Communication About Problems, Solutions, and Interpersonal Communication and Safety Skills

We coach parents and teachers to introduce the term ‘social aggression’ in an upbeat, matter-of-fact way.

For example, a teacher might say, “Physical aggression, like hitting or kicking, is unsafe. It is against the rules at our school. Social aggression is like hitting with feelings. It’s sometimes hard to see, but it causes harm just like hitting or kicking. Gossiping about someone, excluding someone, or making mean faces at someone are examples. Social aggression is also unsafe. It is against the rules at our school.”

A parent might say, “Social aggression is hurtful behavior with feelings. It’s not hitting or kicking. It’s things like excluding, saying mean things about someone, or gossiping. If these things are happening to you, please tell me so I can help. You deserve to feel safe.”

Naming the problem and creating a positive, productive way to address it can change it from being an isolated feeling to shared and acknowledged understanding.

Any caring adult can add, “It’s normal for people to make mistakes with their power, especially when they are young. If you ever got upset and hit or kicked, that does not mean you are a bad person, it means you made a mistake when you were full of feelings. If you ever gossiped about someone or left them out of a game, that does not mean you are a bad person, it means you made a mistake and used your power in a way that was not safe. Sometimes people do those things without knowing how much it can hurt. It’s OK if you didn’t know, and once we learn new things, we can make new choices. It’s the job of grown-ups to help kids learn ways to be safe with their power – and to help everyone be safe while we are learning.”

In an upbeat, matter-of-fact way, such as by using Kidpower’s Positive Practice™ methodology, coach interpersonal and social-emotional safety skills in a way that leads to fun, laughter, and a feeling of joy and connection in your group or family.

By putting the primary focus on practicing skills and solutions instead of on the problems, adult leaders can acknowledge people’s mistakes and inappropriate behaviors while communicating belief in everyone’s value and ability to learn skills to support everyone’s safety and well-being.

Address Social Aggression With a “Skill and Responsibility” Approach Rather Than a “Shame and Blame” Approach

Each of the sample statements above reflects core messages that can help young people build their own confidence as well as their own trust in the adults leading them. Those core messages so powerful for young people to hear from their adult leaders include:

  • I care about you, even when you have done something hurtful.
  • Mistakes are part of learning.
  • Making mistakes with power, including aggression, is a normal part of learning.
  • I will step in and stop hurtful behavior because I care about everyone involved and because I put safety first.
  • When I notice hurtful behavior, I will use the opportunity to teach skills for everyone to be safer.
  • Ensuring physical and emotional safety among a group of young people in a family, school, or youth group is an adult responsibility.
  • Past actions do not do not define a child’s character or value
  • You are valuable, and worthy of my time, attention, and caring.
  • I believe you have the power and the ability to learn to use your power wisely.
  • I believe you have the right to be safe.

As an adult leader, take time to write the core messages you want to communicate to the young people in your care through your actions. Consider posting them where you will be able to see them at your most tired and frustrated moments; they can be like a lighthouse helping you find your way.

A ‘shame-and-blame’ approach, in contrast, often leads to problems such as breakdown in communication, loss of trust and connection between adults and young people, and lost learning opportunities. For example, labeling a specific person as a bully can imply blame for a deficiency in character. If we, as leaders, simply see a child as someone who IS a bully, then we might be less likely to consider how we can support their growth. If we see this individual as a valuable young person engaging in bullying behavior – behavior which is absolutely inappropriate and must be stopped – then we might be more likely to recognize an opportunity to teach skills and support growth. This process includes teaching them skills as well as how to take responsibility for their hurtful actions.

Consider the two images:

  • a bully” [shame/blame perspective]
  • a child using bullying behavior” [skill/responsibility perspective]

Does either image make you feel more disgust? More empathy? More distance? More connection?

As an adult leader, you can strengthen your ability to guide young people by considering how the perspective you choose to take, including the words you use to describe problems, can affect your own effectiveness, creativity, and leadership.

Build Skills and ‘Walk the Talk’ to Support Social-Emotional Safety, in Person or in Social Media/Online

Do you gossip or speak in ways that would likely be hurtful to the person you are talking about – and do you do this where young people can hear your words or read your posts?

One Kidpower Parent Workshop participant told our class about complaining about her daughter and the girl’s friends by text with another mother – only to discover that her daughter was watching their conversation in real time in another room on a tablet that was synced with the phone.

Kids notice when their adults talk about other people – and they notice how they talk. If adults engage in gossiping, rumor-mongering, exclusion, or talk harshly or judgmentally about others’ appearance or weight, their children will very likely engage in similar behavior.

‘Walk your talk’ remains valuable parenting advice. Today’s parents simply need to keep that advice in mind in the many new places they go, in the real world and online. At Kidpower, we advise children, teens, and adults to Think First before saying or sending words, images, or videos online: would you feel okay if it was published for all your friends and family to see tomorrow? If not, don’t send it. Parents can ask themselves, “How would I feel having my child see or hear how I am treating this other person?”

Finally, we need to be kind to ourselves as well as others. We can all remember that mistakes are part of learning – and, we can adjust our behavior to be more consistent with our own goals and values.

For more information about Kidpower’s resources for teaching these People Safety Skills and concepts, please visit our online Library (free community membership) and our RelationSafe™ Bookstore.

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Published: May 4, 2016   |   Last Updated: September 20, 2017

Erika Leonard manages our California center, trains and mentors instructors, and is a Kidpower Senior Program Leader.