What do you think of when you hear about mean kids? You probably think of adolescent kids excluding others from their cliques, starting rumors, and other nasty behaviors. Unfortunately, we see such behaviors from both boys and girls at all stages of development, having a negative impact on their mental health.
While seeing the antics of mean kids and adults in the media is promoted as entertainment, it's anything but entertaining in real life. It's just another form of bullying--deliberate, repeated acts directed toward a target to harm them. Research shows that this form of anti-social behavior, which experts call relational aggression, has serious consequences and deserves as much school attention as physical aggression.
What is Relational Aggression?
Physical aggression causes bodily harm, whereas relational aggression involves interpersonal manipulation to harm personal relationships, feelings of acceptance, friendship, and inclusion in peer groups.
Because emotional aggression is subtle, often hard to observe, and not immediately apparent, it's easier to hide from adults than physical aggression. Further, it is often not taken seriously or downplayed as "girl drama." When ignored or mishandled, the results can be devastating, leading to mental health, emotional, and behavioral issues, including suicide.
Who Are These Mean Girls and Boys?
Relational aggression is commonly thought to stem from low self-esteem and lack of accountability in the environment, with four factors at play—peers, family, emotions, and school. Here are some examples in each of these categories:
Peer Factors: Elevating their social status, fitting in with a peer group, or controlling the behavior of their peers
Family Factors: Experiencing a home life that includes aggression or violence, having poor emotional support from caregivers, or low parental involvement
Emotional Factors: Being bullied in the past, gaining a sense of power over others, or lacking the skills to handle social situations positively.
School factors: Improperly addressing conduct problems and bullying, allowing a school climate that tacitly accepts stigmatization, or failing to create a safe environment that normalizes asking for help.
What Relational Aggression Looks Like
You probably have a good idea of what mean girls and boys do. The behavior may intentionally exclude others, give someone the silent treatment, or spread malicious rumors about a peer—perhaps even a close friend. They may belittle or make fun of a schoolmate, humiliate them in public, or recruit others to participate in targeting a child. You may have experienced it yourself and know the pain it causes.
It also includes cyberbullying. A Pew Research Center study found that 59% of teens in the US say they have been bullied or harassed online, and over 90% believe it's a major problem for people their age.
Looking at Social Groups and Bullying
Social groups are essential to a child's identity. In the best circumstances, peer groups provide the opportunity to establish trust, empathy, and a sense of connection. However, mean girls turn the positive aspects of social groups upside down. Looking at social interplay brings us to the question of why we focus on mean girls when we see plenty of verbal and emotional aggression from boys.
Boys employ approximately equal physical and emotional aggression, with the emotional end decreasing in later adolescence. On the other hand, girls are more aggressive than boys with relational bullying, especially during middle school through early adulthood.
Why is this so? Girls place a greater emphasis on relational issues and connection-building in social situations. Research shows that girls engage in relational aggression to establish or maintain their social status. With social concerns being a top priority, relational aggression can be especially traumatic for girls who become targets.
Not Just Tweens and Teens
When we think of mean girls, we usually get a mental picture of bullies in middle and high school. And in fact, almost all forms of bullying peak in middle school.
However, studies have shown that children can experience it throughout their school years:
Elementary: 33% of elementary school students report being frequently bullied at school.
Tweens: One in five (20.9%) tweens (9 to 12 years old) has been cyberbullied, cyberbullied others, or seen cyberbullying.
Middle School: 6th-grade students reported the highest percentage of bullying (29%).
High School: 20% of students in grades 9-12 experience bullying.
Let's not forget the bystanders who witness bullying incidents. 71% of students report witnessing bullying, and the same percentage say bullying is a problem.
Why Relational Aggression Matters to Schools
Times have changed. It's no longer okay to view relational aggression as a normal part of social development that can be ignored or downplayed. Not only is it dangerous, but mounting evidence suggests that emotional bullying may cause just as much or more damage to youth than physical aggression. Schools must treat it as bullying, pure and simple.
The mental health problems of young people have spiraled control, making it critical to understand victims of bullying are at increased risk for depression, anxiety, substance abuse, sleep difficulties, and other mental, emotional, and behavioral problems. From the academic perspective, over 10% of students who drop out say the cause was repeated bullying. Other results include lower grades, more absences, reduced academic motivation, and poorer educational outcomes.
Even more shocking is the effect of bullying on suicide, the second leading cause of death among US adolescents. A 2022 study found that adolescents who experienced cyberbullying were more than four times as likely to report suicidal thoughts and attempts as those who did not. Bullied youth have a significantly higher risk of developing suicidal thoughts and are twice as likely to attempt suicide.
10 Best Anti-Bullying Practices for Your School
Creating a safe, caring school environment that promotes student well-being and learning is a top priority for every school and district. When it comes to bullying, how can we empower students, school staff, and the larger community to increase a sense of connection, safety, and agency—whether a student is being bullied, knows someone who is being bullied, or is a bystander?
Below are some best practices for helping all stakeholders identify what bullying looks like, understand the consequences, and take proactive steps toward implementing effective prevention and intervention strategies.
1. Develop and implement comprehensive anti-bullying policies that define bullying, processes for handling bullying, consequences, and implementation strategies for changing unhealthy behaviors. 2. Address issues swiftly, with easily accessible mechanisms in place to report bullying incidents and intervene as necessary.
Learn more about Anonymous Reporting Systems.
3. Educate students about bullying and empower them to advocate for themselves and others by teaching specific ways they can help prevent and respond to bullying. 4. Teach social, emotional, and behavioral competencies and build resilience using developmentally appropriate curricula and modeling in the classroom. 5. Train teachers and all staff to identify bullying behavior, spot at-risk students, and know the physical and relational aggression policies. 6. Build trust by enabling teachers to consistently engage with families and implement clear options for two-way communication between caregivers and schools. 7. Promote the responsible use of technology by implementing programs and lessons that teach students to be respectful in emails, social platforms, and other cyber communication. 8. Pay special attention to the needs of marginalized youth by creating an environment and specific programs that decrease stigma and promote respect for diversity. 9. Partner with community agencies and helpful resources that can provide services such as counseling, help with basic needs, and providing role models for at-risk youth. 10. Implement systems for parents, teachers, and students to connect directly with appropriate help resources, including crisis support.
Be Proactive in Fighting Mean Kids Culture
Combatting school bullying and its long-lasting effects require a multi-faceted approach that implements evidence-based interventions to support potential targets, victims, bullies, families, teachers, and all stakeholders.
Schools can use anti-bullying programs, effectively reducing bullying by approximately 19 – 20%. Many districts are turning to technologies and organizations that provide a full range of anti-bullying solutions. When considering which approach may be right for your school, look for evidence-based, health-centered solutions from STOPit Solutions.