Relational Bullying

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"She had barely introduced herself when Brianna and Mackenzie gave her a code name and started calling her Harriet the Hairy Whore. They told everyone Jenny was hooking up with the boys in the woods behind the soccer field. Jenny knew that being called a slut was the worst thing in the world, no matter where you lived. No one was even kissing yet. It was the lowest of the low"2 (p. 26).

Overview of Relational Bullying

Childhood bullying is often noticed when physical signs, like bruises and cuts, are present. Although we generally can see the signs of physical bullying, there are other harmful forms of bullying that occur in childhood circles. An even more painful type of bullying is one that hurts a child on the inside. This relational bullying is a hidden type of aggression ( or hostile behavior) where peers harm "others through purposeful manipulation and damaging of their peer relationship"1 (1995).

Types of Relational Bullying

  1. Stonewalling: The Silent Treatment: Stonewalling or the silent treatment is where people ignore one another. If two children are angry with another child, they may choose to go about their business, ignoring the other child completely.
  2. Exclusions from the group: Exclusion from a group is where a single member can be cut out from all activities and participation in a group. This is slightly different from the silent treatment, because it goes a step further from ignoring by making sure a child knows that he or she isn’t allowed in the group.
  3. Spreading rumors and gossip: Children will often say things about other people, behind their backs, or even worse within earshot. Hearing it through the grapevine can easily skew true stories, and ruin children’s reputations.
  4. Taunting: Taunting is another form of spoken relational bullying, but it's said to a person's face. Taunting continues and even flourished in the face of distress.
  5. Making Friendship Conditional: It is often noticed when the phrase, "I'll only be your friend if..." is used. By making friendship conditional, it makes children overly cautious around their friends; those they should be most comfortable with.

Why Bullying Continues...

Relational bullying is something that is difficult for persons outside of the bullying circle to detect because of the hidden style (it's not physically obvious), but why don’t children do anything about it? Why, if they're being bullied, don't they make different friends, or tell an adult? The main reason why is that children are often afraid of being alone. Being lonely as a child is often scarier than having to friends at all, even if those friends are bullies. Children are often bullied by the same people whom they call their friends and they will put up with some taunting and conditionality of a relationship, just to have friends. Even if they talk to an adult, it's often hard to figure out who is doing the bullying, because it can easily be a group of people actively or passively participating in the act.

There are a lot of ways that relational bullying occurs, but where do children learn to act relationally aggressive? Sadly, the most prominent displays of relational bullying are seen in the home. Children either watching siblings or parents, may model the behavior they see and bring it to the playground. If relational bullying is observed in such forms as gossiping about neighbors, using the silent treatment, or making love conditional, children may interpret that type of aggression as an appropriate way to communicate and to relate to other persons. Children may also see their peers participating in this bullying, see it as successful, and decide that it's in their favor to follow the example of their peers.

Relational bullying is obviously a very big problem, and the best thing to do about problems such as this is to prevent them. There are many different types of school interventions, but you as a parent are capable of providing your own personal prevention program:

Ways to Prevent/Repair Relational Bullying

  1. Have multiple social groups: One of the simplest prevention strategies to assist your child in avoiding the damage that comes from relational bullying is to establish multiple social circles in which your child participates. Whether your child is participating in a church youth group, a sports team, or in an art class, these different sources of social interaction allow a child to establish worth on more than a scholastic social network.
  2. Model appropriate behavior: Modeling appropriate behavior is probably one of the most vital things in the prevention of relational bullying. If negative behaviors in families (like gossiping and love conditionality) promote negative behaviors in children, it seems that positive behaviors in families would promote positive behaviors in children. Make sure that your family has established a communication pattern of kindness and inclusion. The phrase "if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all" is commonly used in families to teach children that kind words are the only words that should be spoken one to another.
  3. Talk to your child about empathy: Just as you should model appropriate behavior to your children, you should talk to your children about good pro-social behaviors, the most important being empathy. Empathy, or feeling and understanding another persons' situation, can be a huge deterrent to relational bullying.
  4. Talk to your child about bullying: Using a direct approach and talking to your child about bullying is also an important way to help stop the bullying cycle. You and your child can develop a game plan on what to do if they’re being bullied or if other people start bullying someone else. Something simple as walking away or saying "this isn't fun, let's go play a fame" can be an easy way to prevent your child from being a part of the bullying cycle.
  5. Teaching forgiveness: Forgiveness is a key component to breaking the cycle of relational bullying. Things like gossip, taunting, and stonewalling, usually occur because someone has held a grudge. If your child learns to forgive other they'll be less hurt by victimization, and less likely to find reasons to bully others.
  6. Developing a strong sense of self: Finally, helping your child develop a strong sense of self can be the most important factor in dealing with relational bullying. If your child is capable of feeling good about him or herself then they'll be less hurt by bullying and less likely to bully as a means for group approval.

Relational bullying is an important issue to address with your children. By understanding and learning more about relational bullying, you as a parent can be more capable of preventing it and repairing issues that may have already occurred. As a parent, your example is very important for displaying appropriate relationships. Remember to watch how you interact with others, and how you talk about friends and neighbors when they're not present. Also, help your child to develop a strong sense of who they are to deter any negative feedback they receive in a social environment. These things will help foster a positive outlook for all children and could prevent the cycle of relational bullying from continuing.

Additional resources

If you need more help there are plenty of sources dedicated to the prevention of relational bullying. A few are list below:

Written by Stephanie Deverich, Research Assistant, edited by David A. Nelson and Stephen F. Duncan, professors in the School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.


  1. Crick, N. R., & Grotpeter, J. K. (1995). Relational aggression, gender, and social-psychological adjustment. Child Development, 66, 710-722.
  2. Simmons, R. (2002). Odd girl out. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Books.