Relational Bullying


“She had barely introduced herself when Brianna and Mackenzie gave her a code name and started calling her Harriet the Hairy Whore. They told everyone Jenny was hooking up with the boys in the woods behind the soccer field. Jenny knew that being called a slut was the worst thing in the world, no matter where you lived. No one was even kissing yet. It was the lowest of the low” (Simmons, 2002, p. 26).

Overview of Relational Bulling

Childhood bullying is often noticed when physical signs, like bruises and cuts, are present. Although we generally can see the signs of physical bullying, there are other harmful forms that occur in childhood circles. An even more painful type is one that hurts a child on the inside. This relational bullying is a hidden type of aggression where peers harm “others through purposeful manipulation and damaging of their peer relationship.”

Types of Relational Bullying

1) Stonewalling: The Silent Treatment:

Stonewalling or the silent treatment is where people ignore one another. If two children are angry with another child, they may choose to go about their business, ignoring the other child completely.

2) Exclusions from the group:

Exclusion from a group is where a single member can be cut out from all activities and participation in a group. This is slightly different from the silent treatment, because it goes a step further from ignoring by making sure a child knows he or she isn’t allowed in the group.

3) Spreading rumors and gossip:

Children will often say things about other people, behind their backs, or even worse within earshot. Hearing it through the grapevine can easily skew true stories, and ruin children’s reputations.

4) Taunting:

Taunting is another form of spoken relational bullying, but it’s said to a person’s face. Taunting continues and even flourishes in the face of distress.

5) Making Friendship Conditional:

It’s often noticed when the phrase, “I’ll only be your friend if…” is used. By making friendship conditional, it makes children overly cautious around their friends – those they should be most comfortable with.

Why Bullying Continues…

Relational bullying is difficult for persons outside the bullying circle to detect because it’s not physically obvious, but why don’t children do anything about it? Why, if they’re being bullied, don’t they make different friends, or tell an adult? The main reason is children are often afraid of being alone. Being lonely is often scarier than having no friends at all, even if those friends are bullies. Children are often bullied by the people they call their friends, and they will put up with some taunting and conditionality of a relationship, just to have friends. Even if they talk to an adult, it’s often hard to figure out who’s doing the bullying, because it can easily be a group of people actively or passively participating.

There are a lot of ways relational bullying occurs, but where do children learn to act relationally aggressive? Sadly, the most prominent displays of relational bullying are in the home. Children watching siblings or parents may model the behavior. If relational bullying is observed in such forms as gossiping, using the silent treatment, or making love conditional, children may interpret that as an appropriate way to communicate and to relate to others. Children may also see peers participating in this bullying, see it as successful, and decide it’s in their favor to follow the example.

Relational bullying is obviously a big problem, and the best thing to do about such problems is to prevent them. There are many different types of school interventions, but you as a parent can provide your own prevention program.

Ways to Prevent/Repair Relational Bullying

1) Have multiple social groups:

One of the simplest prevention strategies to help your child avoid the damage from relational bullying is to establish multiple social circles for your child. Whether your child is participating in a church youth group, a sports team, or an art class, these different sources allow a child to establish worth in more than a scholastic social network.

2) Model appropriate behavior:

Modeling appropriate behavior is probably one of the most vital things in the prevention of relational bullying. If negative behaviors in families (like gossiping and love conditionality) promote negative behaviors in children, it seems positive behaviors in families would promote positive behaviors in children. Make sure your family has established a communication pattern of kindness and inclusion. The phrase “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything as all” is commonly used in families to teach children kind words are the only words that should be spoken one to another.

3) Talk to your child about empathy:

Just as you should model appropriate behavior to your children, you should talk to your children about good pro-social behaviors, the most important being empathy. Empathy, or feeling and understanding another person’s situation, can be a huge deterrent to relational bullying.

4) Talk to your child about bullying:

Using a direct approach and talking to your child about bullying is also an important way to help stop the bullying cycle. You and your child can develop a game plan on what to do if they’re being bullied or if other people start bullying someone else. Something as simple as walking away or saying “this isn’t fun, lets go play a game” can be an easy way to prevent your child’s being a part of the bullying cycle.

5) Teaching forgiveness:

Forgiveness is a key component to breaking the cycle. Things like gossip, taunting, and stonewalling usually occur because someone has held a grudge. If your child learns to forgive others they’ll be less hurt by victimization, and less likely to find reasons to bully.

6) Developing a strong sense of self:

Finally, helping your child develop a strong sense of self can be the most important factor. If your child is capable of feeling good about him or herself they’ll be less hurt by bullying and less likely to bully as a means for group approval.

Relational bullying is an important issue to address with your children. By understanding and learning more about relational bullying, you as a parent can be more capable of preventing it and repairing issues that may have already occurred. As a parent, your example is very important for displaying appropriate relationships. Remember to watch how you interact with others, and how you talk about friends and neighbors when they’re not present. Also, help your child develop a strong sense of who they are to deter any negative feedback they receive in a social environment. These things will help foster a positive outlook for all children and could prevent the cycle of relational bullying from continuing.

Additional resources

If you need more help there are plenty of sources dedicated to the prevention of relational bullying. A few are:

Written by Stephanie Deverich, Research Assistant, edited by David A. Nelson and Stephen F. Duncan, professors in the School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.

Adapted from the Website Forever Families

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