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A UVM research team says the key to stopping “relational aggression” is empowering bystanders


Published December 15, 2010 at 9:53 a.m.


If Johnny punches Joey in the stomach during recess, we know that Johnny is a bully. Because of his bullying behavior, Johnny is sent to the principal’s office and punished according to his crime.

Pretty straightforward. It’s easy for schools to deal with bullying when the offense is physical. But what about when Susie tells Sally she won’t be her friend if Sally doesn’t stop talking to Jan? What about when Susie writes a nasty comment on Jan’s Facebook profile picture?

That’s exactly the type of behavior that concerns University of Vermont psychology professor Annie Murray-Close, who studies what psychologists call “relational aggression.” The recent spate of nationally publicized suicides — each with a backstory that involves bullying — has demonstrated that aggression doesn’t have to be physical to harm children and young adults. But schools may not be prepared or equipped to deal with this sneakier side of bullying.

A large part of the problem is that relational aggression often occurs behind closed doors — or, these days, on the Internet and in text messages. “You can see the physical aggression: ‘He hit me’ or ‘She hit me,’” says Erin Shoulberg, a graduate student working in Murray-Close’s lab who is writing her dissertation on the subject. “It’s the sort of tricky ambiguity of relational aggression that is the hardest for administrators to deal with. It is harder to detect.”

Girls in particular are more likely to be affected by relational aggression — the so-called “mean girls” phenomenon. “When it’s physical violence in the schools, there is already a rubric there for how to deal with that,” says Shoulberg, “but when it is this emotional pain, and these kids are being victimized socially and emotionally, it is not as clear cut.”

Murray-Close believes there are things teachers and parents can do, and she and her staff of 25 undergraduate research assistants and three graduate students are conducting a study that aims to find strategies to eliminate this subtle but prevalent form of bullying. Their labs are middle and high schools in the Burlington area, as well as a Vermont summer camp. Their lab rats? Vermont kids.

By surveying and interviewing students about themselves and their peers, the researchers have been able to identify which students are using relationally aggressive behavior and which students are its victims, and they have begun to analyze and understand their motivations.

One participating school is Malletts Bay School in Colchester (grades 3 to 5). Principal Julie Benay says she’s more than happy to accommodate the UVM team of researchers, because she knows all too well that relational aggression is a real problem her students and faculty are facing.

“If we don’t address the issue thoroughly, consciously and carefully before middle school, it’s really too late,” says Benay. Which is why Malletts Bay School makes bullying a focal point of its curriculum.

“Most people are not targets, and most people are not bullies,” Benay explains. “Most people are the bystanders, and the adults aren’t going to see it. So what works best is to talk openly with students about it ... Kids are not stupid. They are not going to exhibit relational aggression or bullying in front of us grown-ups. That is just the plain truth.”

How can teachers, parents and school administrators deal with a problem that students strategically hide from them? Murray-Close hopes that, through her study, she can build and improve on what schools such as Malletts Bay are already doing.

“I think the most important thing is for parents, teachers and students to first understand that these behaviors are harmful,” says Murray-Close. “Ultimately, though, I would want to provide teachers and schools with ways to deal with these problems.”

The key to ending relational aggression, explains Murray-Close, is to take power away from the bullies. People usually think of bullying in terms of two parties: the bully and the victim. But Murray-Close believes the best way to end relational aggression in kids is to develop a program that focuses on everyone else: the bystanders.

“We want to really empower kids who are not using these behaviors to help socialize other kids. The bystanders are the ones who can change the culture of what is popular within a classroom or school,” says Shoulberg.

Research suggests that bystanders do not usually use this power; it is rare to see kids intervene on behalf of a victim. However, when bystanders do intervene, they tend to be successful at putting an end to the bullying, says Murray-Close. In any setting, she notes, the bystanders will outnumber the bullies. If schools can create a culture of empowered bystanders who say it isn’t “cool” to be relationally aggressive, the bullies will respond.

Murray-Close says many kids report that they just don’t know what to do when they see others being bullied. Providing bystanders with information on how best to support victims can be very effective, as can helping them understand when they need to tell an adult what they’ve witnessed.

The team’s message is that it’s the kids, not the adults, who have the ultimate power to stop bullying. But for kids to realize and use their power, they need guidance from their teachers and parents. This is the missing link that Murray-Close and the lab are hoping to build. When they’re done researching, Murray-Close will take the collected data and use it to design a peer-based mediation program that schools can incorporate into their curricula.

In the meantime, Shoulberg and Murray-Close say that adults can help simply by starting a conversation with their kids about relationally aggressive bullying.

“Studies show that just talking about bullying can be a big help,” says Shoulberg. “Sometimes when people say things like ‘This doesn’t happen here,’ that is when it’s more concerning, because relational aggression is hard to see. Often, with the relationally aggressive bullies, they are very savvy with adults, and a lot of it goes on behind closed doors.”