Science of Parenting: Mean Girls — and Boys

AMES, Iowa – Kids can be mean — whether on the elementary school playground or in the middle school hallway or high school cafeteria. This meanness, called relational aggression, is the topic of this month’s Science of Parenting podcast from Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.

“Relational aggression is any kind of mean behavior that aims to harm the relationship or the social structure of the group as a whole,” said Sarah Coyne, an assistant professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University. “You see it all the time. It’s gossiping, it’s spreading rumors, destroying relationships, social exclusion.”

And mean girls aren’t the only ones using relational aggression, Coyne noted. “Recent research has shown that boys actually use it just as much as girls do.”

During the 30-minute Science of Parenting podcast, program host Douglas Gentile, an associate professor of psychology and extension specialist at Iowa State, “parent-on-the-street” Mike Murray and Coyne discuss what parents can do to if their children are the victims of mean kids.

The podcast is available for free download from the Science of Parenting website or can be subscribed to in iTunes.

“You can’t play with me anymore.”

Relational aggression is a form of bullying. It happens when a child says something like “you can’t play with me anymore” or “I’m having a birthday party on Saturday and you can’t come,” Coyne explained.

It’s hard to catch acts of relational aggression, Coyne continued. “If you’re beating up on a kid, you’re more likely to get in trouble with a teacher. But it’s pretty hard to catch somebody spreading a rumor.”

However, the damage from relational aggression is real, Coyne said. “The research says it can be just as harmful as physical aggression. … I’ve talked with plenty of girls who still carry the scars of relational aggression. They were picked on as teenagers, and they had a whole group turn against them and do mean things. It was an awful experience for them and they feel lonely and sad and anxious — and they can carry that with them for their whole lives.”

Coyne added, “If your kid gets beat up on the playground, often you can see the effects of that. But how do you visually see when someone’s a victim of gossip or somebody gets left out on the playground? They might be sad, but it’s going to take a lot of probing for parents to try to figure out why they’re sad and what happened.”

Parents can empower their children by teaching them how to stand up for themselves, Coyne said. The key is getting the child to tell an adult — a parent or teacher — about the aggression, Coyne said, “letting somebody know it’s a problem so you can work it out.”

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The Science of Parenting offers research-based parenting advice from experts across the country. The monthly podcasts are available for free download from the Science of Parenting website, or can be subscribed to in iTunes. Each month a new, 30-minute Science of Parenting program, as well as previous programs, will be available, as well as blog posts and other research-based parenting information.