27 April 1998

Words Really Can Hurt

Girls use relational aggression - manipulation of peer group relationships - to really hurt. Studies of peer victimization have previously concentrated on physical aggression between boys, paying particular attention to the aggressors. Research into relational aggression concentrates on the invisible sleights handed out by children to members of their peer group, from social exclusion to unkind words , resulting in emotional distress .

In the April issue of the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology a report by researchers Nicki Crick, at the University of Minnesota, and Maureen Bigbee of Ramsee Elementary School, focuses on the targets of relational aggression. Usually girls, they are rejected by their friends, lonely, anxious and socially outcast - sounds like working at Science à GoGo.

This research shows that social bullying causes more significant adjustment problems than physical attacks. All victimised kids experience distress and loneliness as a result of name-calling and social isolation, but relational aggression causes more long term anxieties such as impulsiveness and difficulty controlling anger. Adult mental health problems may result if effective recognition and treatment of victims is not implemented in the early stages.

Whereas the bruised and battered are easy to spot - and help - the emotionally wounded are a trickier problem altogether. They may look like they're having fun but boy (or rather girl), when they grow up, will they be trouble... submissive, emotional, impulsive - ring any bells? Just as boys will be boys, girls will be girls. Just watch out for the sugar-and-spice girls' revenge when they grow up mean.