On the last track, we discussed four myths of popularity. These four myths are, popularity equals happiness, popularity gives people self confidence, popular students have more friends and better friendships, and everyone likes popular people.
On this track, we will discuss six components of relational aggression. These six components are, looks, the gay issue, conceit, exclusion, rumors, and the label ‘slut’.
Candace’s, parents decided to move from the city into a rural area. Candace, age 15, was now in a very small school. Candace stated, "The girls in my class just wouldn’t accept me. At first, they just ignored me, and I was always eating lunch all alone. But then the popular girls, the ones who were ignoring me, started spreading rumors about me. It got to the point that I couldn’t walk down the halls without someone whispering ‘gay’ or ‘slut’. It’s horrible!"
Much attention has been paid in the news media to bullying that is physically or verbally aggressive in nature. However, as you have observed, relational bullying can be just as damaging, especially when all of the members of a clique participate in bullying one individual. Generally, the relational bullying is observed more frequently among girl cliques than cliques composed of boys.
According to Kathleen Winkler, a survey of 477 fourteen to seventeen year old girls revealed that 36% of these girls felt that the popular cliques often intimidated or embarrassed students not part of the clique. However, only one third of the girls surveyed said that the popular clique members who use relational aggression get into trouble at school for their actions.
Six Components to Relational Aggression
# 1 - Looks
I have observed six components of this relational aggression used by and in cliques. The first of these components is looks. Clearly, looks are the most important standard which most adolescents use to judge their peers. I have observed that adolescents, especially females, need constant reassurance that they ‘fit in’ and have the ‘right’ look.
In one survey of 12-14 year olds, 80% defined physical appearance as the most important thing that peers use to decide who fits in. Think of a student you are currently treating who is dealing with relational aggression. Has he or she suffered a loss of self-esteem as the result of a clique attacking his or her looks?
# 2 - The 'Gay' Issue
In addition to looks and differences, a second component of relational aggression concerns the issue of labeling peers as "gay". As you have observed, adolescents and even some adults may label a peer ‘gay’ as an insult. This frequently has nothing to do with the target’s sexual orientation, but more to do with the themes of looks and differences we have already discussed.
Laurie, age 10, was very active in sports, and kept her hair closely cropped for convenience. Laurie stated, "Amy is the most popular girl in school, but she and her ‘pals’ hate me, and I don’t know why! Yesterday, Amy yelled ‘get away, lesbian!’ and shoved me down the stairs when I walked past her. I don’t even know what that means!" During the intervention between the two girls that followed, I discovered that Amy herself did not have a clear understanding of what the word lesbian meant.
# 3 - Conceit
A third component of relational aggression concerns calling a girl ‘conceited’. I have observed that popular cliques use calling a girl conceited, full of herself, or saying that ‘she thinks she’s all that,’ as a powerful weapon. According to Kathleen Winkler, this label is so negative that within popular cliques, girls will verbally degrade themselves to avoid any possibility of being perceived as conceited. Girls may run themselves down by saying, "I’m so fat, but you look great!" Are you currently treating a female adolescent who uses self put-downs to avoid being labeled as conceited?
# 4 - Exclusion
A fourth component of relational aggression is exclusion. As we have discussed in previous tracks, exclusion is a powerful tool used by cliques to ‘punish’ targets like Candace. As you have observed, it is not only unpopular targets who become the victims of exclusion and isolation. A member of a popular clique who crosses someone ‘above’ him or herself in the pecking order may suddenly find him or herself isolated, friendless, and alone. Clearly, this can be a devastating experience.
# 5 - Rumors & Secrets
A fifth component of relational aggression involves spreading rumors or telling secrets. These rumors may be completely untrue, as Candace experienced. I have also observed this component of relational aggression among students who perceived themselves as ‘in’. Teresa, age 16, confided in her friend Angie that she did not like the girl chosen as the year’s Homecoming Queen.
Teresa stated, "I guess Angie was secretly mad at me because this guy she liked asked me to dance. By the next morning, everybody knew I didn’t like Stacy. By lunchtime, my whole class was choosing sides and people were yelling at me! Stacy’s friends threw their lunches at me. It was horrible!"
# 6 - Lableing Someone a 'Slut'
In addition to looks, the gay issue, conceit, exclusion, and rumors, a sixth component of relational aggression involves girls labeling each other as ‘sluts’. This label can upset even girls at the top of the clique hierarchy. Today, walking the line between suggestive fashion and clothes perceived as ‘slutty’ is like walking a tightrope for adolescent girls, but any mistake can result in her being labeled with this extremely negative, hurtful, and damaging word.
Emily White interviewed hundreds of girls who had been labeled a ‘slut’. She concluded that a girl who is labeled a ‘slut’, regardless of whether she is actually sexually promiscuous, is rapidly isolated. According to White, even if boys claim to have slept with her, social rules prevent them from displaying any loyalty to her, or they will be branded ‘contaminated’ by her. Girls who may have been the target’s close friends may recede and keep a distance, concerned that they will also be labeled sluts if they associate with the target.
6-Step Technique: Confronting the Queen Bee
I suggested to Candace that one direct technique she might try is the Confronting the Queen Bee technique. Candace was able to identify the girl who had started the rumors as Bobbi, the leader of the school’s most powerful clique. I suggested that Candace prepare to confront Bobbi about her hurtful behavior by using the following six steps:
1. Write down details of the relational aggression, including the date and what was said. When you confront the clique leader, you will have examples of what he or she has been doing.
-- 2. Practice what you will say in front of the mirror. Keep your tone calm, your eyes steady, and your body language confident, but non confrontational.
-- 3. Pick a place and time when you can talk to the clique leader alone, but where you feel safe. Perhaps he or she does homework in the library every Monday. Do not confront the clique leader in front of his or her friends. This will cause him or her to lose face, which will make his or her behavior towards you worse.
-- 4. Describe exactly what has been bothering you.
-- 5. Tell the clique leader exactly what you want him or her to do and not to do.
-- 6. Always try to end with a compliment. Tell the clique leader you like him or her, or use another true compliment. Indicate that you would like to be friends.
Think of your Candace. Would the Confronting the Queen Bee technique be helpful to him or her?
On this track, we have discussed six components of relational aggression. These six components are, looks, the gay issue, conceit, exclusion, rumors, and the label ‘slut’.
On the next track, we will discuss the five steps in the compromise on conformity technique for parents of excluded adolescents. These five steps are, paying attention to the adolescent’s style, undergarments, facial or body hair, hygiene, and compromising on media.
Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Banny, A. M., Heilbron, N., Ames, A., & Prinstein, M. J. (2011). Relational benefits of relational aggression: Adaptive and maladaptive associations with adolescent friendship quality. Developmental Psychology, 47(4), 1153–1166.
Ettekal, I., & Ladd, G. W. (2015). Costs and benefits of children’s physical and relational aggression trajectories on peer rejection, acceptance, and friendships: Variations by aggression subtypes, gender, and age. Developmental Psychology, 51(12), 1756–1770.
Ettekal, I., & Ladd, G. W. (2017). Developmental continuity and change in physical, verbal, and relational aggression and peer victimization from childhood to adolescence. Developmental Psychology, 53(9), 1709–1721.
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