Bullying Relational Aggression- How to end the on-again off-again friendship cycle

Relational Aggression: How to End the On-Again-Off-Again Friendship Cycle

Welcome to the 4th installment of my blog series on relational aggression. If you missed the first post and want to start at the beginning, you can find it here.

In an earlier post, I mentioned that relational aggression can occur between close friends. This type of bullying can be confusing for children to understand.

Why Kids Overlook Mean Friendship Behavior

  • They think of bullies as the stereotype “Mean Mike” who takes your lunch money and threatens to beat you up if you don’t let him copy your homework.
  • They have a sense of loyalty because they have been friends for several years.
  • They are using black/white or concrete thinking. They may think, “a bully is mean but my friend can be really nice.”
  • They want to preserve their friendship group.
  • Low self-esteem.

Whatever the reason, children are much less likely to recognize or report bullying when it occurs between them and one of their friends.

It can be tricky to get a student to even acknowledge that their friend is bullying them. Some of the students I work with are afraid to lose a friend and will choose to ignore aggressive behavior in order to preserve their friendship.

While each student has the ability to make their own friendship choices, their decision to stay in an abusive friendship causes emotional distress, distractions during school, and emotional distress.

It is important that children understand how other people’s behavior affects them and how they can make positive social choices.

Steps to Help a Student Assess Their Friendship

If I notice a pattern of relational aggression (usually three or more occurrences, I follow these steps to help children understand how their friend is behaving:

Step 1: Have the child write down the problem they are having with their friend. (Some children may need to have an adult write down the details of the problem. Write the details down so the child can see what is being written and to provide a sense of inclusion.)

Make sure they include specific details:

  • Who is involved
  • When did it start
  • How often does it happen
  • Who has witnessed the behavior
  • What they have done to try and solve the problem
  • What would they like to happen

The more details the child is able to provide, the better. The information gathered during this step will help the child stay focused on the problem.

Step 2: Have the child list the pros and cons of their friendship. Refer to the problem they wrote about in step 1 if they have a hard time identifying cons.

Step 3: Review the list of pros and cons and ask the child if their friend has been acting like a friend.

After the child has been able to identify the problem behavior, empower them to take action:

Step 1: Brainstorm different ways the child can respond to their friend when they are being aggressive.

Step 2: Make sure to identify what they will do if their friend continues to act unfriendly or mean.

Step 3: Have the child write their plan down on paper and make a copy in case they lose their original.

Step 4: Schedule a time to follow up with the child to review how their plan is working.


Right about now you may be wondering what I do with the other child(ren) involved or you may be wondering about meeting with all of the children together.

In order to get all of the sides of the story, I meet with all of the parties involved separately and follow the steps I laid out above. After I meet with the children individually, I meet with them together to help facilitate the problem solving/conflict resolution process.

A word of warning: meeting with children that are having friendship problems can get out of hand without guidelines.

Establish Rules When Responding to a Referral

  • One person speaks at a time. I have a “friendship flower” that the children hold when they talk. If you want to talk, you have to wait until you have the flower.
  • Use “I” statements. We can only control ourselves. When we start talking in terms of what someone else has done we cast blame and put ourselves in the role of a victim.
  • Stick to the script. We are meeting to discuss a problem that has already been described and written down. This is not the time to dump additional grievances to try and win the coveted “I am right and you are wrong” trophy.
  • Plan for the future. Create a list of what each child is going to do to make the situation better. Be specific. “Be nice” sounds good but what does that look like? How exactly will the other person know that they are doing it and how is that behavior different from what they are doing now?
  • Schedule a time to review how everything is going.

*If a situation is too hostile/aggressive/manipulative I refer them to my principal under the guidelines of Michigan’s Anti-Bullying Law.

I hope you find the process I follow to help children who are experiencing relational aggression to be helpful. Need some more help tackling relational aggression?

Enrollment is currently open for my online Relational Aggression Toolbox professional development course. Click HERE or the image below to learn more details.

relational aggression course sign -up

How do you handle relational aggression? Do you have a process you follow? I would love to hear about it in the comments below!



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