It Starts at Three Years Old

Most of us have seen or at least heard of teenagers forming cliques and intentionally excluding others. Called relational aggression, experts now are noticing this behavior in children as young as 3 years old. And, as a form of bullying, it is potentially more harmful than physical aggression. Children tend to forget about physical fights and scuffles on a playground, but being excluded and told they are not allowed to play with certain kids sticks with them.

Relational aggression is a relatively new concept in psychology, but most people have seen it or experienced it. Relational aggression involves controlling or bullying a child by threatening to remove a friendship. This can involve forming cliques and intentionally excluding certain children, coercing children into refusing to play with other children, or threatening to not invite a child to a party unless they do what a bully wants them to do.This kind of bullying  is surprisingly effective because of younger children’s limited cognitive abilities. Young children tend to think in black and white, especially special-needs children or those in special education. To them, threatening to take away a friendship is devastating and sometimes far more real than physical aggression.

Unlike physical aggression, relational aggression seems to increase with age. It is also more common in girls than in boys. One elementary school counselor in Sibley, Iowa has reported seeing first-grade girls making lists of who is allowed to play with whom during recess. It is not known why some children are more prone to relational aggression than others, although some experts believe that they learn this behavior from their parents, older siblings, or from the media. Some educational experts also do not believe that relational aggression is truly on the rise in young children. Anti-bullying programs are focusing on it more causing it to be pushed into the spotlight. It could be that this problem has always existed and that we are now starting to notice it.

Many children still believe that bullying is limited to beating up other kids on the playground, and that forming cliques and manipulating other children does not count. Relational aggression is sometimes more harmful to a child’s self-esteem than any other form of bullying, and as someone working in special education it is very important that you teach your students proper conflict resolution and bullying prevention skills when it comes to this kind of behavior. Schools all over the country are starting to notice how harmful and prevalent relational aggression really is, and it is time to implement it into anti-bullying programs at your school to stop bullying abuse, especially at such a young age. [1]


[1] Inspired by the May 26, 2014 Wall Street Journal article by Sumathi Reddy, “Little Children and Already Acting Mean”.

[box style=”rounded”]At Stanfield, We Think You Should Know:

BeCool Chester Cat

In our BeCOOL: Lower Elementary DVD Curriculum, Chester the Cat and his friends will teach your K-2 students how to handle relational aggression.  PROVEN EFFECTIVE, BeCOOL ranks as the #1 conflict management program in America!  The complete series is composed of 6 Modules that covers grades K-12.[/box]


Categories: Bullying , Conflict Resolution , Developmental Disabilities , Social Skills & Fitting In , Special Education
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