Relational bullying. It hurts just as much, if not more, than outright physical bullying. Getting shoved into the lockers every day hurts. Getting excluded from a group who were your “friends” the day before, being gossiped about, having rumors started, not being chosen for PE class or allowed to take part in the group you were put in for a project, those are the daggers that really go deep. Those actions say “You’re not good enough. You don’t belong.” Belonging is a strong need of all humans. Through connection with others, we thrive and flourish. When we are excluded or isolated, we wither inside. Relational bullying breeds an ugly cycle because we know that hurting people hurt others, and so the one who was excluded may then seek to exclude. The one who was ignored may begin to ignore others. When these hurtful behaviors are allowed to be the norm in our homes and classrooms, it spreads like a cancer, eating away at the self-worth of those it touches.
As I was looking into this topic, I kept coming across the term “mean girls.” Lisa McCrohan writes a wonderful article about Raising Girls Who are Includers Instead of Mean Girls, Deborah Song writes How to Handle Mean Girls, and Whitney Fleming writes for the Huffington Post about Raising Includers in which she discusses a scenario involving girls. I know this is a big problem for girls and I remember dealing with these issues beginning in elementary school and even in the workplace as an adult. Yet, I caution against believing this is a problem that only affects girls. As a mother to boys only, I can attest that relational bullying touches them too, and it hurts them just as much. I’ve held my sons through tears from being ignored, left out, and left confused by boys who are friendly one day and mean the next. It’s heartbreaking for any parent to know their child is hurt.
The Ophelia Project is a national nonprofit aiming to stop relational aggression. The results of their studies show that girls report relational aggression more often than boys, but I have to wonder if their boys are just keeping silent. After all, aren’t they still supposed to be “tough” and “not be a crybaby about it?” They report that 48% of students have experienced relational bullying. Nearly half of our children are being emotionally bullied at school. We have to address this, and it starts at home, sure, but schools need to work toward a solution as well.
Relational bullying damages self-worth. It affects a child’s self-concept, and children with low self-esteem have more behavioral problems. They may lash out at siblings, parents, or peers. They are then labeled as trouble-makers, further fueling the belief that they are “bad” and continuing the cycle of acting out. Other children turn the hurt inward. They become anxious or depressed. They may withdraw from family members or friends. Learning is impaired because learning best happens in the context of connection and safety. Both aggressors and victims are at risk for early drug and alcohol use and even eating disorders or, in extreme cases, suicide.
What Can Parents Do?
- Heal the hurt. When you become aware that your child has been bullied in this way, the first thing to do is heal the hurt caused by it. Listening to your child with an empathetic ear will go a long way in easing the pain. Show them you understand by sharing your own stories. Build up their self-worth with kind and encouraging words every day to offset whatever negative stuff they may be hearing at school, on the field, or elsewhere. Never demean, bully, or isolate them in an effort to discipline them, build sibling relationships, and create a culture of inclusion and peace inside your home.
- Talk to your children about what relational bullying is and how to handle it. Empower them with responses using “I” statements. “I feel hurt when you ignore me because I thought we were friends.” You may want to role-play several scenarios with your child so that he or she gets comfortable with being assertive.
- Teach your child to be a noticer and an includer. Point out the child swinging alone at the park. Ask your kid to invite the lonely child to play. Talk about how to be on the lookout for people who are sad, lonely, or being left out and how to initiate a conversation with them. Also coach them on being aware of the people around them and how their actions may affect others. Sometimes children aren’t excluded because someone is being mean but simply because they get wrapped up in playing with their own close friends and they don’t notice who isn’t getting a turn or who is being ignored.
- Teach your child positive friendship skills so that they can form social connections will help act as a buffer against bullying.