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Mean Words Start Early

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson


Children as young as two-and-a-half engage in what’s known as “relational aggression.” They say things like, “You’re not my friend anymore,” and “If you do that, I won’t play with you.” Basically, as soon as kids are able to talk they are using words as weapons.

For a long time, relational aggression was thought to be something older children engage in. It was thought that children  – especially girls – form cliques and separate themselves into two groups, the “in” crowd and the outsiders, only in late elementary school and middle school. But this is not right at all. Research demonstrates that even in preschool, children use threats to withhold friendship as a way to influence other kids. By the time children become preteens they’re already very skilled at being mean.

The old saying, “Sticks and stones my break my bones but words will never hurt me,” is another aspect of this issue that is just plain wrong. As Oregon elementary school counselor Laura Barbour notes, “Kids forget about scuffles on the playground but they don’t forget about unkind words or being left out.”

Physical wounds heal. Emotional wounds do not.

We adults are more likely to see physical fights and we’re more worried about children going home with scrapes and bruises than we are about verbal nastiness and emotional hurts.  Unless we overhear what children say to each other, we may not know. Even if we do find out that children are rejecting other kids and getting others to reject them also, we tend to do very little. We tend to be annoyed and impatient but not really worried.

Maybe we should be worried. Studies by Jamie Ostrov, a leading researcher in this area, have demonstrated that relational aggression increases as children get older, so that verbal bullies become more unpleasant when their aggressive actions aren’t restrained. The effects of relational aggression on victims persists too. A child who is rejected by classmates in preschool and kindergarten tends to continue to be an outsider all through school. About 50% of children in grades 5 through high school say they’ve frequently been victimized by relational aggression. This is in contrast to the percentage of these students who say they’ve been physically bullied daily or weekly – only about 7%.

What should parents and teachers do? Here are some ideas to help curb the occurrence of relational aggression.

  1. Pay attention to it and make your disapproval clear. Do not ignore mean comments you hear children making to each other, or mean assessments they make when talking with you about their friends. Do not tolerate mean talk.
  2. Be inclusive and avoid supporting the class pecking order. If you are a parent, invite every child in your child’s class to her birthday party. If you cannot invite them all, invite only one or two. If you are a teacher, mix things up when selecting work groups and playground teams. Never let children do the choosing if you know they are likely to always pick the same children first.
  3. Notice media messages. Research has shown that educational media intended to teach character development frequently backfires. Children pay more attention to the problem – to the depiction of bullying and verbal aggression – than to the solution that comes at the end. And, in fact, the time devoted to depicting problem behavior in children’s media is much longer than the time allotted to the happy ending. Find programs and media that simply demonstrate positive ways of getting along, instead of media that set up a before-after contrast.
  4. If your child repeatedly is a victim of relational aggression, don’t ignore it. Your child needs more support and more help to overcome this than you might think. Bring this to the attention of your child’s teacher (or, if you’re the teacher, to the child’s parent) and make certain a plan is made to teach better ways of getting along. Most of all, don’t blame the victim by suggesting that her social status is her fault and that it is she who must change.
  5. Be a good role model. Avoid talking about the relative worthy or popularity of different children, especially, but even of your own friends.

Relational aggression may become apparent at much earlier ages than we once thought. But this doesn’t mean it’s “natural.” Children have to be taught to be mean. Make certain instead they are taught to be nice.


© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.

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Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.