5Q :: Why curbing relational aggression is so importantWhile relational aggression may appear harmless at first, left unchecked, “RA” has resulted in physical harm and suicide.
If any of your loved ones are currently in middle school, relational aggression is a term you should familiarize yourself with. It is a form of bullying that begins to rear its ugly head in junior high and the late elementary years. While its effects may not initially appear entirely serious, “RA” is far from harmless; in fact, there have been instances of physical harm and, when left unaddressed, death.
To learn more about RA, the Budgeteer recently talked to educational specialist Dianne Durante. She and Kirsten Hagman, a licensed master social worker and fellow therapist/consultant, have been studying this finally-on-the-radar phenomenon:
Budgeteer: For the uninitiated, how do you explain relational aggression to people who have no idea what it is?
Durante: Relational aggression is a complex type of bullying that we are seeing a lot more of now than in the past. We used to think of bullying as a threat of physical harm and it was often associated with boys.
Relational aggression is the new form of bullying and it is prevalent among, but certainly not limited to, girls. It often involves covert forms of torment, where the friendship itself is used as a weapon against the victim.
It could come in the form of rumor spreading, gossiping, name calling or in some way splitting up friendships that are important to the target. Cyber bullying is also a very well-documented example of relational aggression and this phenomenon is growing each year with the widespread use of social media and text messaging among our youth.
Some people might be tempted to make light of RA — especially after watching a movie like “Mean Girls” — so ... how serious is it, actually? What kind of scars, whether physical or not, does RA leave?
That’s a great point. RA is not a joke! At the very least, RA can cause the victim to withdraw from things that they had previously enjoyed, like extracurricular activities, in order to avoid their peers. They find themselves wondering what they have done to “deserve” this treatment or questioning their self-worth, and they may suffer from anxiety or depression. School assignments may suffer due to their anxiety about being in school and they may withdraw from family because they mistrust people, feeling like there is potential to be betrayed by those who are the closest.
Sadly, we have also heard a number of stories in the last few years about middle and high school students, both girls and boys, who have taken their own lives after feeling tormented by bullies. Some of these children have reported the abuse, but some resort to suicide because they truly do not know where to turn to get help. For some children and adolescents it is truly a life or death situation. We need to approach every situation of RA as if this were the case.
One misconception about RA, I assume, is that it is only limited to junior high cliques — but, throughout your studies, how far-reaching can RA get?
We have focused our programs on grades four through eight because we know how prevalent this bullying is during those years. It often begins to become a problem during these years but continues to plague the victim throughout the rest of their school career.
However, what we know from reading the works of others is that RA incidents are documented at all ages, at all socio-economic levels and in all communities. There is even research showing that some of the children who are tormentors grow up to be bullies in the workplace and at the PTA meetings for their children.
What are some of the best methods to combat RA?
Developing zero-tolerance policies in the school is a great first step. School systems must have a concrete plan of action to deal with bullying in all of its forms. That should include an open-door policy with students to come to a trusted adult to report RA if they are victimized or if they see someone else getting bullied. Teachers, administrators and community members need to all feel a responsibility to look out for the signs of a bullied child, just like we look out for children who are abused. This is a form of abuse.
In the homes, parents should help their children develop healthy communication skills and empathy toward others. Highly empathetic individuals would not find these behaviors acceptable, and healthy communication will help children feel like they can approach an authority figure if they see RA happening.
We need to begin a dialogue about this problem. Talk about it at your child’s school, at home, at church — anywhere you have the ability to positively impact a child’s life.
If left unchecked, do a lot of RA abusers continue their ways into adulthood, perhaps even into intimate relationships?
Many experts believe that a RA situation could be a precursor to relationship violence since it establishes a pattern of the victim being demeaned. The victim accepts the passive role in a relationship with a person that she cares about. She practices justifying the behaviors of her peers the way that she may later justify the abuse of a partner. There is a huge impact of self-esteem and mental health and the damage that is done may take years to heal.
NEWS TO USE
Learn more about this form of bullying on Durante's Web site, www.everydaysymbols.com.
Tags: budge community, online exclusives, relational aggression, kirsten hagman, dianne durante, mean girls, duluth, budgeteer, 5q, bullying, tweens, preteens, schools, education, learning, safety, life, health