What Is Relational Aggression?

upset teen girl with other girls in the background

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Relational aggression is an insidious type of bullying that often goes unnoticed by adults. Teens and tweens that engage in relational aggression can often bully, control, and manipulate others—all under the radar of parents, teachers, and other adults. Some kids are so skilled at this type of bullying that no one would ever suspect them of hurting others.

Studies of North American pre-adolescents and adolescents show girls tend to be more relationally aggressive than boys, especially during fifth through eighth grades. However, while relational aggression or emotional bullying is sometimes referred to as the "mean girl" phenomenon, these damaging behaviors are not limited to one particular gender.

Signs of Relational Aggression

While the tactics used in relational aggression vary from one person to another, there are some common specific behaviors to look out for:

  • Backstabbing
  • Cyberbullying or shaming others online
  • Establishing rules for anyone who wants to be part of the social group
  • Excluding and ostracizing others
  • Forming cliques
  • Intimidating others
  • Leaving hurtful or mean messages on cell phones, social media, desks, and lockers
  • Making fun of others for who they are, the way they dress, or how they look
  • Spreading rumors or engaging in gossip
  • Using peer pressure to get others to take part in bullying 

Why It Happens

One of the top reasons tweens and teens engage in relational aggression is to establish and maintain social status. They may use emotional bullying to isolate a victim so they can increase their own social status. A variety of other factors motivate this behavior, including everything from envy and a need for attention to a fear of competition.

Boredom

Teen bullies thrive on telling juicy stories or sharing negative information. As a result, tweens and teens create excitement in their lives by spreading rumors, sharing secrets, or creating drama.

These teens enjoy the attention they get for knowing something others don’t know. And they like being able to bring down their competition with a juicy story that ruins another person's reputation.

Peer Pressure

Some kids compromise their values or principles to fit in with a group or to gain acceptance. They might spread rumors or gossip in order to feel like part of the group or become more popular.

Tweens and teens might take part in group bullying or ostracize another person in order to be accepted by their peers. Many times, they do these things out of fear of losing their own social position within the group.

Low Self-Esteem

Relational aggression is sometimes a cover-up for low self-esteem. For instance, a bully may feel insecure about their own clothes or appearance and will attack others before they can attack them. Other times, tweens and teens bully others because they mistakenly believe that doing so will make them feel better about themselves.

Competition

Some kids bully others simply out of jealousy. Perhaps they feel the other person is better looking, smarter, or more popular. Whatever the reason, kids will often target someone to make them seem less desirable to others. Often, they will use tactics like rumors, slut shaming, and name-calling to make another person look bad.

Learned Behavior

Sometimes kids gossip and talk poorly about others because it is a learned behavior. Whether it is a television program, an older sibling, a parent, or even a teacher, kids often model their behavior on what they see and experience in their own lives.

Emotional Effects of Relational Aggression

It’s not uncommon for parents and educators to underestimate the impact of relational aggression. But for those on the receiving end, it is just as painful as any other type of bullying. In fact, many kids report that relational bullying is as hurtful as physical aggression.

The difference is that unlike physical violence, relational aggression does not leave wounds and scars behind, making it potentially more insidious. In some cases, victims of emotional bullying show more signs of distress than those bullied physically.

Victims of relational aggression often experience:

  • Academic struggles
  • Depression
  • Difficulty forming healthy friendships
  • Eating disorders
  • Feelings of rejection, inadequacy, and unattractiveness
  • Low self-esteem
  • Suicidal ideation

If you notice any of these characteristics in your child, take them seriously. Don't be too quick to brush them off as normal teen mood swings. Dig a little deeper and discover what is going on. You also may want to consider talking with their pediatrician or finding a counselor that specializes in bullying issues.

If your child is having suicidal thoughts, they can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If they are in immediate danger, call 911.

What to Do

Relational aggression is a confusing and painful experience for every member of the family. But there are several things you can do to help your teen navigate relational aggression. Always make sure you take the time to listen to your child. Be encouraging, patient, and empathetic.

Remind your child that what is happening is not their fault. Discuss the fact that while they cannot control what other people do or say, they can control their response. Consider counseling to help them express their feelings and learn healthy coping skills.

Also, have them evaluated by your family doctor or a pediatrician if you notice any signs of depression or if they are expressing thoughts of suicide. These things should never be ignored.

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5 Sources
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