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Relational aggression: Why are young children so mean?

Original blog post published November 3, 2017 on NZARE

When we think about relational aggression, one thing that may come to mind is the ‘bitchy’ female behaviour commonly seen in middle childhood and adolescence and portrayed in movies such as Mean Girls. However, children as young as three have been reported gossiping, spreading rumours, and excluding or denying their peers from participating in play. More than 20 years ago, researchers labelled these behaviours as relational aggression and noted that they differ from typical forms of physical aggression commonly seen in young children in that these relational aggression behaviours focus on causing harm to social relationships.

When I first learned about these forms of relational aggression among very young children, I was an Early Intervention Teacher. I was horrified by my ignorance – how could I have not been aware of these behaviours occurring within the early childhood centres I worked in? When I started talking to other educators about these behaviours, most confessed that they see these behaviours “all the time” but said that it was “just a normal part of growing up that the children will grow out of.”

With a keen interest in social development and working with children who displayed behavioural concerns, I was horrified that despite early childhood educators being aware of these behaviours, very little intervention took place because it was viewed as typical behaviour, something that children will grow out of – a kind of developmental milestone that children experience. This left me with a very uneasy feeling. I knew that I couldn’t walk away and do nothing, now that I knew what I knew.

My hunch

Intent to cause harm is a central component of the definition of aggression. However, from everything I had learned in my Undergraduate psychology papers, I wasn’t convinced that such young children had the skills to be able to participate in relational forms of aggression with the intent to cause harm. I thought it likely that these children were just modelling others’ behaviours and weren’t deliberately using these sophisticated behaviours to achieve hierarchy and prominence in their social groups or to exclude their peers. After all, these children had only been in existence on this earth for a very short three years, and it seemed to me that it takes time and experience to learn how to skilfully manipulate social situations to get what you want and to develop a keen eye for other peers who can be easily persuaded or dominated or may be weaker than you.  I just didn’t believe all this could happen in the first 3 years of life.

In this blog post, I consider this key question from my doctoral research“Can young children (3-5 years old) engage in relational aggression with the intent to cause harm?” and share some of my findings. I aim to highlight the role of teachers and parents in inadvertently communicating to young children that relational aggression is more acceptable than physical aggression.

What I found

From children

I collected and analysed hours of video and audio recordings of young children engaging in social play in both unstructured and structured activities. This data clearly confirmed that children as young as three do indeed engage in both relational and physical forms of aggression.

I found that the choice of which type of aggression to use was often based on what the child wanted to achieve from the situation. For example, some children used relational aggression as a reaction to another behaviour – such as when another child was kicking blocks over and the aggressor said “I won’t be your friend if you keep doing that.” In most incidences of relational aggression though, the behaviour was premediated and proactive with the aim of gaining social dominance of the play situation or of an object. This differs to children who predominately used physical aggression, which is often reactive.

What was most interesting, though, was the conversations I had with children after I had observed them. This was an opportunity for children to watch the videos of themselves engaging in play and social encounters, while telling me why they were doing what they were doing. I was amazed by how aware these young children were about their behaviours. Most of the children were able to clearly articulate and describe why they were excluding another peer from play and what they expected the outcome to be. For example, one child (aged 4) wanted to play on a bike and continued to threaten the two other children by saying “If you don’t give me a turn I won’t be your friend.” The child continued to repeat this phase in an aggressive tone for almost three minutes. When we watched the video of this incident, I asked the child: “Is it okay to say ‘I won’t be your friend’ to other children?” The child responded, “No … [but] I don’t care, I wanted to have a turn and I didn’t want to wait my turn.” Once the child got a turn on the bike, positive emotions of laughter and satisfaction were displayed as the goal had been achieved.

These conversations were a unique opportunity to see situations through the eyes of a young child who had directly engaged and participated in the aggressive behaviour. It was clear that by giving young children an opportunity to justify their negative behaviours and aggressive actions, we as adults (and researchers) can better understand why some children choose to use aggression to achieve social goals whereas others choose more prosocial behaviours. So can young children engage in relational aggression with the intent to cause harm? Indeed they do, and they often do it in such sophisticated ways that, when standing on the periphery of their social worlds, educators and parents don’t recognise it. One we engage in conversation with children, we can better understand their intentions.

From educators and parents/caregivers

My discussions with educators and parents/caregivers highlighted a number of concerning factors that may have contributed to the reasons why relational aggression goes unchecked. In particular, I found that:

  • Teachers and parents viewed relational aggression as less serious than physical aggression. For example, a teacher defined aggression as being “pushed or shoved, like a physical type of behaviour … It actually needs to be more than just saying ‘I don’t want to be your friend’ and that sort of thing. It needs to be more than that.”
  • Teachers and parents were more likely to do nothing about relational aggression, yet they responded immediately to physical aggression. For example, a parent stated that when responding to a child pushing another child, “I would tell the child that it is bad behaviour and I’d put them at the end of the line so they feel how it is to be at the end of the line and learn patience.” However, in response to relational aggression, a parent said to the child, ‘It is sad to be left out’ and went on to find them an activity that everyone could play together.
  • Teachers and parents were more likely to feel empathy for children who had been victims of physical aggression compared to relational aggression. For example, a teacher commented: “I mean, these words are bad, but they happen with kids all the time … You can actually see the physical stuff and it hurts them.”

These findings about teachers’ and parents’ views weren’t surprising, because they were consistent with previous research, but they were incredibly disappointing because they contradicted best practice recommendations to intervene and respond to all forms of aggression. Clearly these perceptions reflected a systematic denial that all forms of aggression are serious and require intervention.

Without intervention, we inadvertently communicate to young children that the behaviour is acceptable. The consistency in both teachers’ and parents’ perceptions and practices in regard to child aggression suggested a much broader societal standard – one which I became even more concerned about. This is an aspect I am investigating further in a subsequent study exploring New Zealand educators’ and parents’/caregivers’ perceptions of relational and physical aggression (in particular, identifying why they differentiate between these two forms of aggression).

So what does this research mean?

The take-home message from my doctoral research is to not underestimate the socially damaging behaviours that young children use to achieve goals. Aggression isn’t something that children will “just grow out of”. As adults, we need to recognise that all types of aggression can be harmful and we need to communicate to young children that all types of aggression are unacceptable. In order to do that, our responses to these behaviours need to be consistent. Young children are sensitive to our responses, so if you intervene and communicate that their behaviour is harmful to others, there is a high chance that child will stop engaging in that behaviour. This really puts the onus back on educators and parents/caregivers to be consistent in responding to young children’s harmful behaviours – both physical and relational.

My current research project is allowing educators and parents/caregivers to have a voice about the types of resources and supports they would like to help them facilitate healthy social relationships in their young children. If you’d like to share your perceptions and make a difference to the social development of young children, parents can participate here and teachers here.