The mom of a third grade girl sits in my office, her face buried in her hands. Through muffled sobs, she tells me that she’s at a loss. She’s tried everything to help her daughter repair her friendships at school — arranging coffee dates with the families of the other girls, meeting with the teacher and school director, and even trying to organize a group sleepover to get the girls together — but nothing has made a difference. Her daughter is on the outs with a peer group she formed in preschool, and this mom feels powerless to help.
Her daughter is the victim of what’s called relational aggression. For reasons she might never understand, her three close friends have built a new alliance and excluded her. They taunt her, spread rumors about her, and leave her out of their activities, encouraging others to do the same. They seem to have no remorse, while she experiences anxiety, nightmares, and academic difficulties.
Relational aggression can occur in person or online and can include gossiping, spreading rumors, public humiliation, alliance building, and social exclusion. Unlike physical bullying or verbal aggression, relational aggression can be difficult to spot. Recess, passing periods, lunch, and the walk to and from school are hotspots for relational aggression, but the damage can also be done outside of school, often under the radar of adults.
Unfortunately, this girl — and her mother — are not alone. According to statistics compiled by The Ophelia Project, a national nonprofit with expertise in relational aggression, 48 percent of students in grades 5 to 12 are regularly involved in or witness relational aggression, and students between the ages of 11 and 15 report being exposed to 33 acts of relational aggression during a typical week. The proportion of youth who experience cyberbullying is estimated to be as high as 40 percent or more.
As I detail in my book No More Mean Girls, being the victim of relational aggression can come with some long-term consequences. In fact, relational aggression is said to be as painful as physical blows, and its negative effects can last for years to come. Children who experience relational aggression are more likely to be absent from school, perform worse academically, be socially isolated, and exhibit headaches and stomachaches, behavioral problems, eating disorders, suicidal ideation, substance abuse, symptoms of depression and anxiety, loneliness, and low self-esteem. No wonder that mom is concerned!
But there is good news: Parents can help their kids deal with social exclusion by teaching them coping skills and empowering them to seek healthy friendships. While your natural instinct may be to get the school involved, communicate with the parents of other kids, and jump into problem-solving mode, what kids need most is support, empathy, and space from the problem. Try some of these strategies adapted from No More Mean Girls.
Watch for the signs
Given that kids experience feelings of shame and embarrassment when being victimized, they don’t always come forward right away. Many wait until they feel like they’re falling apart before they reach out for a lifeline. To that end, it helps parents to watch out for the red flags that a child is experiencing relational aggression:
- Anxious or nervous behaviors
- Frequent physical complaints, such as headaches or stomachaches, particularly before school or social events
- Talking about sitting alone at lunch or playing alone at recess more often than not
- Appearing withdrawn or depressed
- Changing academic performance
- Acting out in class or at home, or even turning the tables and acting as the bully
- Talking about having no friends or being “hated”
- Talking about death or engaging in self-harm (cutting)
- Sleep disturbance: Difficulty falling asleep, difficulty staying asleep, frequent nightmares, or excessive sleeping
- Changing eating habits
Once you see these signs, you will want to check in with your child or the school to see if relational aggression may be causing them.
Use conversation starters
One reason kids hesitate to come forward when dealing with relational aggression is that it’s difficult to discuss. They don’t want their parents to think that they’re incapable of making friends.
Open and honest communication with kids is essential during middle childhood and the tween/teen years. They need to know that parents will listen without judgment and provide unconditional love and support. To get in the habit of deep, distraction-free conversations, create a pack of conversation starters to use when you have downtime together. It helps to start a weekly ritual of quiet conversation and hot chocolate (or some other cozy treat).
Examples of conversation starters might include:
- Something funny that happened this week was…
- If I could escape anywhere for just one day, it would be…
- Something hard that I had to deal with this week was…
- I wish my friends…
- Something you don’t know about me is…
- My favorite way to spend a day off is…
Taking turns pulling conversation starters for each other from an envelope helps you connect in a low-stress environment and helps your child open up about difficult topics.
Make a friendship tree
Kids are usually tasked with making a family tree at some point in school, but making a friendship tree is a great way to help kids realize that they have many different friends in life. Just as family extends beyond the people living in your home, friendships blossom in a variety of contexts.
Start the tree with the friends your child knows the best (even the ones she doesn’t spend much time with), but cue your child to think about friends made in sports, through religious organizations, in extracurricular classes, or even at your local park. In filling the branches with friends from a wide variety of settings, girls learn to focus on the positive relationships in their lives. When kids see that they have more friends than the people sitting at their lunch table, they are empowered to strengthen those other branches and even add new ones by trying new clubs, sports, or activities.
Create a personal billboard
When friends constantly leave a child out, that child internalizes the message that he or she is unlikable or not a good friend. It’s important to help kids tap into their inner strengths and recognize that they are good friends to others.
Give your child a small poster board and ask her to think about her positive qualities. This can include anything from cracking funny jokes to creating cool games to giving great compliments. Next, explain that billboards are used to draw attention to things and showcase the highlights. Have your child put her name in the center of the poster board and ask her to create an eye-popping billboard that includes her positive traits. This is a great way to help kids recognize and focus on their strengths.
One thing I see over and over again is that parents are determined to “fix” things for their kids. When kids finally find the strength to come forward and share their feelings and experiences, parents whip out their phones and begin texting other parents, emailing the school, and even reaching out on social media to garner support. Kids tend to retreat inward again in response.
A better strategy is to problem-solve with your child. The first step is to really listen to what your child is saying. Ask follow-up questions to make sure you understand. Empathize with your child. Ask your child to help you jot down notes so that you can remember the specifics to share with helpers. Communicate that you understand how painful the situation is and that you are there to help and provide support.
Next, move into problem-solving mode. It’s important to brainstorm possible solutions together to empower your child to take action. In doing this, you teach your child how to cope with future similar situations. Try to brainstorm four or five possible solutions, and talk about the pros and cons of each. Make an action plan together.
Create a coping kit
Whether your child is left out from one or two social events or experiences social exclusion frequently at school, he or she needs to have coping skills available to deal with the emotional upheaval. I encourage parents to tuck a pack of coping cards into the child’s backpack, as it can be difficult to remember what to do when under stress. Every child is different, so it’s important to create these cards with your child, but you can try a few of these to get started:
- My touchstone at school is (fill in the blank). I can ask this person for support.
- Deep breaths help me feel calm. Breathe in (count four), hold (count four), breathe out (count four).
- Remember this friend (fill in the blank) in another class to hang out with at recess.
- Tensing and relaxing my muscles helps me release stress. I can start with my hands.
It’s perfectly normal for kids to experience ups and downs with friendships, but a pattern of social exclusion (or other acts of relational aggression) should be addressed with the classroom teacher and the school administration. Take notes when your child shares specific stories and capture screenshots if any of this behavior occurs online. If you do notice symptoms of anxiety or depression that interfere with your child’s daily living (school, after-school activities, sleep, eating), it’s best to seek an assessment from a licensed mental health practitioner.
Parents really are not powerless to help their kids recover from social exclusion, but they do need the right tools. By acknowledging feelings, finding solutions together, and helping children tap into their own resources, parents can support their kids through this agonizing experience and ultimately prepare them to face any future adversity with more confidence.
This article originally appeared on Greater Good, the online magazine of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.