How to deal with relational aggression and bullying – advice for parents

Confident young girl




Bright Heart tutor Sally discusses relational aggression and bullying and how parents can respond to this. She also provides some helpful tips on how to avoid or manage it.

How to deal with relational aggression and bullying - advice for parents

Traditionally we might think of bullying as a physical act or a verbal insult by older children or a group of children targeting those more vulnerable, but this is often no longer the case. Relational aggression takes place within friendship groups. It can be very distressing and affect self-esteem, increase anxiety, and cause depression.

What is relational aggression?

Relational aggression is a type of bullying which includes threats or attempts to damage someone’s relationships or social status. It includes excluding people from the group, using silent treatment or threatening to withdraw a friendship. It can involve sharing secrets, spreading rumours, or ‘banter’; for example, mocking their appearance. Perhaps the hardest thing to understand about this form of bullying is that the victim often wants to remain friends with the perpetrators and will do anything to remain part of the group. Often a victim can become a perpetrator to try and win back favour by excluding someone else.

As a parent, you may witness a deterioration of a friendship that seemed very positive at first. It can start with a few negative comments disguised as jokes. Victims are then labelled as oversensitive or dramatic if they express they don’t like it. These friendships start intensely, but then the victim is suddenly dropped for someone else. They have to witness their exclusion via social media posts. Once the relationship is damaged the victim feels vulnerable and can be called ‘needy’ or ‘clingy’ if they try to repair the friendship.

How to respond as a parents

It is always tempting to jump in and try and sort it out on your child’s behalf, but this is usually not the best course of action. Your child needs to feel in control of the situation and know that they can trust you. You need to listen and explain that they cannot control what other people say, but they can control how they respond. 

The first step to take is to encourage other friendships. Suggest new clubs or activities and invite someone different to go with them. Praise your child and highlight all that is good about them; this will help rebuild their self-esteem.

Confident young girl
Self love and building self esteem is key to resilience.

It is very important to agree on what action to take with your child. Do they feel confident talking to a trusted adult at school? Would they like you to do it on their behalf? The school is probably aware of friendship dynamics within the year group. Ask them to support your child to make new friendships through seating plans or planned group work. You do not need to raise it as a bullying issue at this stage if your child does not feel confident to do so. You can inform the school that there are friendship problems and ask for a meeting in two weeks in case the situation persists.

Unfortunately, relational aggression is very hard to prove. Some children are so skilled at this type of bullying that no one would ever suspect them of hurting others. It is manipulative and sly. Keep screenshots of any online incidents and a diary of events as evidence. If the unkind behaviour persists, present the evidence to the school in a meeting with your child. Managing relationships is a difficult task. 

Unfortunately, your child will probably encounter other negative friendships in the future; this can be a time to establish boundaries and build resilience. However, it is important to have time frames and stick to these as your child will likely be reluctant to report it to the school for fear of retaliation. Explain to your child that if the situation has not improved in two weeks, despite the positive action taken (outlined above), then it must be reported to the
school. The school will have lots of experience in dealing with the issues, but they will not be able to take disciplinary action without your child’s cooperation and evidence.

Relational aggression is learned behaviour. We should encourage our children to be upstanders and challenge unkindness, rather than bystanders who are complicit in the bullying.

Children learn how to interact socially with their parents. If you gossip about other parents or purposefully exclude people from social gatherings, you should not be surprised when your child does the same thing. Show your children what it means to be kind and loving. Parents need to model positive relationships. We often point out our friends’ weaknesses instead of verbally celebrating their greatness.

Discuss the dangers of gossip, backstabbing and rumour-spreading with your children. Teenagers do not tend to think about the negative consequences of their actions. As a result, they may engage in relational aggression without even thinking about how this behaviour could impact others. Help your children recognise who is loyal and who is safe. Talk to them about relational aggression. They should be able to recognise it and name it.

Top tips to avoid relational aggression

1) Teach your child to be an upstander

Upstanders are people who stand up for victims. Some children are stronger than others; encourage your child to intervene or attempt to stop the aggression taking place in their circles. It could be something as small as making eye contact with a victim whilst the incident is happening. Encourage your child to ask the victim if they are ok and be kind so that they do not feel alone.

children supporting each other
Supporting and standing up for one another is an important value to teach your children.

2) Carefully manage your child’s online activity.

Relational aggression often takes place online. Your child needs a break from their friendship groups; ensure that they take some time away from their devices each day. A helpful way to do this is to set boundaries and limits for the whole family.

3) Create opportunities for your child to meet lots of new people outside of school

Sports or other activities are an excellent way to make new friends. The focus during practice or games is on the activity and therefore there is less social pressure. They are also likely to meet people with similar interests in these settings. It is important to remember that being part of a clique or excessive togetherness is not healthy. The
healthiest kids have friends in different social circles and a variety of interests. Do not encourage your child to stick with only one group of friends, but instead encourage them to branch out and meet new people.

What to do if you find out your child has been the perpetrator

It is never nice to hear that your child is the bully, but it is necessary to address this behaviour and help them manage the root of the issue. It might be a reaction to something taking place at home or a way of them trying to impress a friend. They might be feeling insecure as they are struggling at school and are being unkind to divert
attention from their shortcomings.

Take steps to help them seek forgiveness for their behaviour. Tell them to apologise to those they have upset and explain they will have to work hard to repair friendships and rebuild trust. Ask the school if they have a mentor or counsellor who could provide support and finally take the steps mentioned above to foster self-esteem so that they do not need to belittle others to feel confident in the future.

We hope this blog was helpful. Please feel free to get in touch with us should you have any questions about your child and their learning at school and at home. We enjoy talking with parents and helping our students by tailoring learning to their individual needs.

Share this article