Bullying Relational Aggression - Identifying relational aggression elementary counselor

Relational Aggression: How to Spot Friendship Bullying

Heather Thomas School Counseling 12 Comments

Welcome to my series on girl drama relational aggression. In this post, we will take a look at the definition of relational aggression and how to tell when it is happening.

As I stated, in my first post about relational aggression, relational aggression is a type of bullying that causes harm within a relationship. The types of relationships can vary greatly; relational aggression can occur between best friends or between two kids that attend the same school.

In either case, it’s the same situation. Relational aggression is an imbalance in perceived power is used to manipulate someone or make them feel excluded from a social group.

Victims of relational aggression are often embarrassed by the rejection of their peers. Friendship loyalty and the confusion of an on-again-off-again friendship makes some children reluctant to seek help.

Since many cases of relational aggression go unreported, it’s important to be aware of the warning signs.

Warning Signs of Relational Aggression

    • Peer rejection
    • Social anxiety
    • Loneliness
    • Depression
    • Low self-esteem
    • Poor self-control
    • Acting-out behavior

Some children may deny victimization due to embarrassment, feelings of loyalty, and/or fear of reprisal. Since many cases of relational aggression go unreported, it’s important for adults to be on the lookout for behavior that may lead children to feel socially isolated.

Relational aggression can be both verbal and nonverbal. In all instances, the aggressor is trying to manipulate or harm the target’s social standing and relationships.

Examples of Relational Aggression

  • Not allowing someone to join a group
  • Leaving someone out of a group
  • Refusing to share friends
  • Refusing to work with a classmate
  • Refusing to sit next to someone in the cafeteria
  • Eye rolling
  • Laughing at someone
  • Sarcasm
  • Giving someone the silent treatment
  • Forcing a friend to pick sides in a disagreement
  • Trying to stop two people from being friends
  • Relying gossip/rumors to the target of the gossip (this can be an innocent attempt to “try to help a friend” but it is far more hurtful than helpful)

Although we now know what relational aggression is, it can be difficult to spot when it happens. Those who engage in relational aggression are particularly adept at manipulation and will often try to spin the situation into a misunderstanding. Unless someone witnesses the aggressor in action it can become a case of he-said-she-said.

We must distinguish rude behavior from relational aggression. In order to do that, we need to look at intent. Remember, relational aggression is intended to lower someone’s social standing.

There’s a difference between being rude and intentionally manipulating someone’s social standing.

Given teenagers tendency towards egocentric thinking, they don’t fully process how their words and actions can impact those around them.

To them, an eye roll might mean they would rather be anywhere than at school. The fact that they rolled their eyes right after being asked to work with a classmate doesn’t even register.

You may be reading this and think, “They should know better!”

I agree 100%. Which is why my first step is to educate the students I see. If adults have a difficult time distinguishing relational aggression from rude behavior doesn’t it make sense that kids will need help as well?

Teach Appropriate Behavior & Expectations

Since the intent of someone’s behavior is somewhat tricky to determine,  establishing behavior expectations is critical.

After teaching behavioral expectations, students can no longer claim ignorance on the subject.


A classroom is taught that everyone works with everybody and refusing to work with someone is not acceptable. Students who don’t follow the expectations can’t blame wanting to work with their bestie instead. That’s not how the classroom works. That’s not an option.

That’s not how the classroom works. That’s not an option.

One of my favorite resources to use with my 4th and 5th graders is I Didn’t Know I Was A Bully by Melissa Richards. It has a 21-page reproducible coloring book and several great lessons that can be adapted for classrooms, small groups, or individual sessions.Bullying Prevention:Relational Aggression School Counselor I didn't know I was a bullyI also LOVE Trudy Ludwig’s picture books! When it comes to the topic of relational aggression, Trudy Ludwig’s books can’t be beaten!!!

Bullying Book: Trouble Talk Bullying Book: Sorry! Bullying Book: My Secret Bully Bullying Book: Just Kidding


Bullying Book

Increase staff awareness of relational aggression with this printable handout. Just click here or on the image below.

Examples of Relational Aggression Elementary Counslor

In this post, we explored different types of relational aggression, behaviors associated with relational aggression, and strategies to increase students’ awareness about how their behavior affects others.

Join us for the next installment in this series as we take a look at K-12 Relational Aggression Lesson Plans. You can also check out my post on ending the on-again-off-again friendship cycle for some practical strategies.

Looking for more books about bullying? Check out my post, 29 Books to End Bullying. If you are looking for fun ways to teach children about bullying, you may be interested in my games and activities for bullying and relational aggression.

What types of relational aggression are you dealing with? Is there a specific area or topic you would like to see covered in this series? I would love to hear from you in the comments below!

Learn how to stop relational aggression in its tracks with this online training provided by The Helpful Counselor - Check out the description for more information


Young, E., Nelson, D., Hottle, A., Warburton, B., & Young, B. (2012). Relational aggression in schools: Information for educators. Helping Children at Home and SchoolIII, Retrieved from http://www.nasponline.org/resources/bullying/Relational_Aggression.pdf

Relational Aggression Skill Development Planner

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