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All kids want friends and to be liked and accepted by their peer group. Relational bullies use this normal human need against their victims, using the power of the group as a tool to harm.

Relational bullies intentionally manipulate and damage the relationships of their victims. They do this through means such as rumor spreading, exclusion, gossip and ending friendships – and the hurt they create can be enormous.

Although physical and verbal bullying are easier to spot, relational bullying is just as harmful and its can be very difficult for parents and teachers to recognize, which is troubling, as research shows that girls are more likely to engage in relational bullying than in any other kind.1

Examples of Relational Bullying

  • Spreading rumors
  • Sending unflattering pictures or messages through texts or on the internet
  • Making friendship conditional (“You can come with us if you do…”)
  • Gossiping
  • Using negative body language around the victim, such as eye rolling when she talks
  • Whispering about someone
  • Making fun of the victim’s appearance
  • Excluding the victim from a social group
  • Revealing secrets
  • Backstabbing

Who Is a Typical Relational Bully?

Relational bullying is most prevalent among girls in grades 5 to 8. Bullies are often popular and charismatic girls who are well praised by adults and rarely suspected as bullies. These girls use relational bullying typically as a way to decrease the victim’s social status as they increase their own.

Relational bullies choose this type of harassment knowing that it is very unlikely that they will get caught and sanctioned for their behaviors.2 In some cases, girls report using relational aggression simply to create drama and excitement, and in other cases, girls go along with relational aggression out of a fear that if they stand up to it, they’ll be next in line as a victim.3

How Harmful is Relational Bullying

Although victims of relational bullying come home with no cuts and bruises, the internal harms of social bullying are just as great, and the long term consequences can be severe.

Research shows that victims of relational bullying are:

  • More likely to bring a weapon to school4
  • More likely to display antisocial behaviors later in life
  • More likely to be depressed and to feel anxiety
  • More likely to have lower self esteem
  • More likely to miss school (160 000 students stay home from school every day in America to avoid relational bullying)
  • More likely to consider suicide5

What Can Be Done about Relational Bullying?

While it’s very hard for parents and other concerned adults to put a spot to bullying they can’t even see, there are things that parents can do to raise children who are less likely to get involved with relational aggression, either as bullies or bully victims.

  • Talk to your children about bullying, even before it happens. Help them understand what bullying is and how to recognize it when they see it; and help them to be the kind of bystander that puts a stop to bullying in others
  • Encourage children to get involved in clubs, sports and other activities at school. Students that get involved in school are less likely to be victims of relational aggression, possibly because their self esteem is less linked to social status and more to achievements in school and in extracurricular activities
  • Encourage children to make friends with others based on interests, rather than based on popularity or social status
  • Explicitly teach empathy and forgiveness, and model these traits yourself in the home
  • Talk to your child about their friends, and remind her that friends should act nice, and that people who act mean to you are not your friends
  • If you learn of relational bullying, talk to the school, so they can get involved in protecting the victims
  • Help relational bullying victims move past the hurt by getting them involved in counseling or in group support meetings6
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Page last updated Jul 16, 2015

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