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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.

Board games have long been thought to support young children’s math abilities. As they move a game piece along colored squares in a game like Chutes & Ladders, children practice counting. They not only use the names for numbers in order but also learn to associate just one square per number, and vice versa.

This is all good and true but a new study points out something I’d never realized, even though it’s obvious. Children who play these games only learn to count as far as the dice or spinner permits. They count the number of spaces they are permitted to move – from one up to maybe six or so – and then, on their next turn, start over again from one.

A report just released by Boston College and Carnegie Mellon University points out this limitation. Elida Laski, one of the lead researchers, says “We found that it’s the way that children count — whether the counting procedure forces them to attend to the numbers in the spaces of a board game — that yields real benefits in the use of numbers… What’s most important is whether you count within a larger series of numbers, or simply start from one each time you move a piece.”

In the study 40 children played a board game consisting of 100 spaces. First, children played the game counting each step starting from one on each turn. So a child who spun 5 on her first turn would move her game piece and count “one, two, three, four, five” and if, on her second turn she spun 3, she would move her game piece and count “one, two, three.” Then, children played again, this time counting from where they left off on a previous turn. In our example, the girl who spun a 3 on her second turn would begin counting from 6, the next number after the last number of her first turn. She would count, “six, seven, eight.”

This sounds a bit complicated and it is. And it is this complexity that expands children’s thinking and their understanding of numbers. Children who played the game using the “count-on” method were better able to use a number line, identify numbers and to count to a higher number than children who played the game using the “count-from-1” method.

What does this mean for you?

If you give a child a board game this holiday season, you might “enhance it” by numbering each space on the track. This will encourage children to play using the “count-on” method and will also reinforce what higher numbers, such as 16 or 25, look like.

If you don’t want to number the game itself, or if the game doesn’t use numbers (Candyland, for example, asks children to move to specific colored squares), then when you play with your child encourage him to count-on instead of count-from-1. This requires a child (and you!) to remember what number was the end number on the last turn, adding even more thinking.

If you have time over the holidays when the children are home from school, consider drawing your own racetrack game on a large piece of paper. Kids can color in the squares, make pitfalls and detours, and decorate the edges of the game board. Number the squares and move by rolling dice or drawing numbers from a jar. Use pennies, Lego or other small objects as tokens. Older children can spent a happy afternoon making their own racetrack games and playing with each other and their younger siblings.

Just remind them to “count on”! As Laski says, counting-on is “a simple way to enhance any game they have at home and still have fun playing it.”


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Dr. Anderson will be in Atlanta, GA on December 10 and 11, speaking at the National Head Start Association’s Parent Conference. Email her at [email protected] for details or to set up a presentation to your group in the Atlanta area on one of those dates.