A 13-year-old boy fights back tears as he describes near constant harassment by three of his peers. On a good day, they call him a girl. On a bad day, they threaten to hurt him, call him unspeakable names, and troll him on his social media accounts. When he deletes his accounts, they pepper him with text messages. When he blocks their numbers, the harassment becomes even more pronounced at school.
Though I wrote a book on little mean girls, these days relational aggression — a form of bullying that includes exclusion and manipulation rather than overt or physical attacks — affects boys, too. Research is starting to catch up with this change in the way boys interact. One study in Norway found that boys are subjected to acts of relational aggression, but they don’t realize that it’s considered bullying.
“If you think relational aggression is only a ‘girl thing,’ think again,” says Michele Borba, author of “Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World.” “A male group intentionally leaving one boy out is a common ploy. Whether it occurs on the soccer field, playground, field trip, or back of the bus, it hurts to know you’re excluded. Boys standing together and saying mean, hurtful and often untrue comments about another is also a common tactic.”
Like girls, boys can suffer from anxiety, depression and low self-esteem when relational aggression flies under the radar. And when they don’t seek help, their emotional health can deteriorate. Parents need help identifying and understanding relational aggression among boys and finding ways to empower them to seek help for — and cope with — these deeply painful social interactions.
Identifying relational aggression
Relational aggression is a nonphysical, covert form of bullying used to damage the reputation of another child or harm and manipulate that child’s relationships with others. It includes a pattern of behavior (not just a single incident) and a power imbalance between the perpetrator and the victim.
Relational aggression can include:
· Gossip and rumors
· Cruel comments
· Social exclusion
· Sarcasm intended to hurt the other person
· Ignoring one child repeatedly
· Manipulation, such as seeking personal information from the victim and sharing it with others
Hot spots for relational aggression include between classes, recess, lunch, bus rides and through use of technology. Given that rumors, cruel comments and information can spread quickly through texting and social media, boys often feel like there isn’t a break from the tormenting. It never stops.
Relational aggression is secretive by design. Whispering hateful comments in the hallways is easy to hide from teachers and other adults. When kids have unrestricted access to technology, posting cruel comments and using messaging apps to torment a peer is easy. Repeated social exclusion might appear like a shift in friendships on the surface, when it’s actually a deliberate tactic to isolate a peer, such as not allowing someone to join the group at the lunch table or refusing to choose a particular boy for a team during group play.
Boys are often taught to be tough and work through obstacles independently. Relational aggression, however, can cause long-term psychological problems. Watch for these signs that your son might be struggling with relational aggression:
· Behavioral regression
· Avoiding social and extracurricular activities
· Sleep disturbance
· Changes in eating habits
· Changes in academic performance
· Refusing to go to school
You know your child best. If you sense that he is struggling, even if he tells you he’s “fine,” it’s a good idea to check in with a trusted teacher or counselor at school. The sooner your child learns to verbalize these difficult feelings and cope with the stress and emotional upheaval, the better he will be able to confront the other boys, or seek help.
Teach coping skills
When boys face relational aggression, they are likely to feel anxious, lonely and depressed. Just getting through the school day can be overwhelming. Many kids cope by overusing technology to check out, or they misplace their anger to vent their difficult emotions. Here are some healthy coping skills parents can teach boys, to help them build resilience and work through this difficult time.
Verbalize emotions: Talking about emotions regularly sends the message that all feelings serve a purpose. Have a family feelings check-in each day to talk about emotions. Modeling expression of difficult feelings (sadness, anger, anxiety) normalizes the process.
Stress reduction: Deep breathing, mindful meditation, journaling and writing, exercise, progressive muscle relaxation, coloring or other forms of art and talking to a trusted person are all healthy ways to channel difficult feelings. Have your son create his own stress reduction kit by writing down strategies that work for him and keeping them in an envelope for easy access when he’s upset.
Assertiveness: Boys need to learn how to assert their needs and feelings with confidence. Practice this by using role play at home. Ask your son to help you think of situations where he might need to speak up, then choose roles and practice. Switch roles after each scenario and give each other meaningful feedback. Make sure to give your son plenty of chances to speak up, including ordering independently at a restaurant, seeking help at a store or the library, and asking for directions.
Problem-solving: It might be tempting to jump in and solve the problem for your son, but kids need to learn how to handle tough situations. Teach your son to identify and verbalize the problem; brainstorm three possible solutions; evaluate each potential solution for obstacles; and choose one and proceed. Check back with him to see what worked and what didn’t.
Create a support network: Help your son make a list of teachers, staff and other kids who will assist in a difficult moment or who can provide daily support.
Build positive relationships: Many kids struggle to leave negative friendships behind because they feel like failures. Help your son create a friendship map to think of all the places he has friends (school, sports, other activities). Talk about the positive friendships on the map and how he feels when he’s with those kids. Teach him to distinguish those interactions from the ones that are more negative, and empower him to walk away from unhealthy relationships.
Promote empathy and inclusive behavior
When kids learn to look out for one another, they feel more confident. Even if your son is not the victim of relational aggression, it’s important to teach all kids to look out for lonely people, offer friendship or support to someone in need, and listen to one another. That’s what it means to be empathetic.
I teach all kids to use the “COME join us” method:
Connect — make eye contact and smile
Offer friendship — say, “You can join us.”
Move away — find a safe place to hang out
Empathize — listen to your friend and help him problem-solve
Boys are often counseled to “develop a thicker skin” by well-meaning adults, but this does them a huge disservice. Relational aggression can and does occur almost everywhere and on a 24-hour loop, and we can’t afford to look the other way or tell our boys to toughen up. We have to give them the tools to cope with the painful emotions associated with relational aggression, and the social-emotional skills to rise above the negativity.
Katie Hurley is a child and adolescent psychotherapist and parenting educator, and the author of the new book “No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident and Compassionate Girls.” You can find her on Twitter and on her blog, Practical Parenting.
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