When people think of aggression and bullying in schools, they often conjure up images of overt or direct physical behaviors such as punching or kicking or perhaps verbal conflict including shouting at or teasing others. However, there is a much wider range of ways that people can use to hurt their peers including more subtle and socially sophisticated forms of indirect aggression.
Our research team at Flinders University conducted studies of gender and age differences in aggression (1, 2) and particularly indirect aggression amongst teenage girls (3, 4, 5, 6, 7).
What is Indirect Aggression?
Indirect aggression (also called relational or social aggression) is “a kind of social manipulation: the aggressor manipulates others to attack the victim, or, by other means, makes use of the social structure in order to harm the target person, without being personally involved in attack (8)”. This includes behaviors such as
- excluding others from the group,
- spreading nasty rumors about others,
- breaking confidences,
- getting others to dislike a person.
We (2) found that girls in Australia tend to be more indirectly aggressive than boys are, especially during the teenage years.
In 2000, we conducted an in-depth qualitative study into the nature of teenage girls’ indirect aggression. We found that girls commonly exhibited the following types of indirect aggression:
- Talking nastily about others – what the girls described as “bitching” about others; spreading rumors; breaking confidences; using code names to talk about peers
- Exclusionary behaviors – from low scale ignoring to more serious exclusion from the group and ultimately ostracism by the class and whole school
- A wide range of other indirect harassments – e.g., spreading of nasty notes, leaving hurtful messages on desks, prank telephone calls, hiding personal property
- Use of non verbal behaviors - including huddling together to exclude others; use of daggers or death stares to intimidate others.
What are the Effects of Indirect Aggression?
These more indirect or social forms of aggression are very hurtful to peers. For example: it is reported (9) that girls found social aggression to be just as hurtful as physical aggression; victims of relational aggression were less accepted, more rejected, more lonely and suffered more emotional distress than their non-victim peers (10).
In our own research (5), girls reported that indirect aggression was very distressing. Some found their victimization experiences so intolerable that they left their school. For others it was even worse with thoughts of suicide. One girl reported of her victimization experience as “the worst year of my life.” Another was of the view that victimization “could emotionally damage someone for life.”
Why Do Girls Do It?
In our research we found two common explanations for teenage girls’ use of indirect aggression toward their peers:
- Alleviating Boredom / Creating Excitement: Many of the girls in our studies reported that their behaviors such as spreading nasty stories were something to do to create excitement in their lives. As rumors spread around the school about, for example, activities at a weekend party, there is great excitement as students eagerly listen and then pass on their own embellished versions of stories to others.
- Friendship and Group Processes: We found that girls’ desires to be part of the group and have close friendships helped explain their indirect aggressive behaviors. For example, in order to gain the attention of peers, girls would spread an ongoing rumor. To be included in the group, girls tend to join in the general gossip about others’ faults. This sharing of social information creates intimacy for those “in” and acceptable as against those who are “out” and unacceptable. As one girl explained: “You just say it (the nasty gossip or rumor) because you don’t want to be left out. You don’t want to disagree with the group.” Another girl said of a victimized girl: “I didn’t really mind her, but I went along with the group.” Within the social structure there is a hierarchy of groups with a “popular” group having the highest social status and then various levels of groups in descending order, with an “undesirable” group at the bottom of the ranking. In trying to be accepted by the “popular” group, girls will often exhibit out of character behaviors approved of by the status gatekeepers.
Our research findings are consistent with other work that has revealed the role of close intimate relationships as the sparks for peer conflicts (11, 12). When girls try to hurt peers they do so by blocking social goals that are very important to girls, such as the establishment of close personal relationships (10).
What To Do About It?
While there is a wealth of research on interventions for boys’ bullying, there is very little research on what might work specifically for girls’ indirect aggression. In our 2000 study, we asked girls about interventions by their schools. The girls indicated that use by schools of a top-down coercive approach resulted in cynical acquiescence by the offender(s) but the continuation of the harassment in an even more covert way.
On an optimistic note, peer helping processes seemed to have a greater chance of success. We have argued that because the causes of indirect aggression appear rooted in the peer group, then solutions that use the peer group may be the way to proceed (6). We found that while girls were subjected to more indirect victimization than boys, they used more constructive conflict resolution strategies (such as compromise) than boys (2). It seems then that girls use the same verbal and social skills to hurt their peers as they do to resolve their conflicts. Bearing these findings in mind, methods that may be particularly helpful in resolving girls’ conflicts in schools include humanistic approaches such as the method of shared concern (13) and a range of processes whereby students act as peer helpers, e.g., buddy programs, peer support, peer counseling, peer mediation (14). More recent research suggests that schools should do more work with bystanders and utilize restorative justice practices (14).
Advice for Parents To Deal With Indirect Aggression in Girls
Briefly, some ideas for parents to consider include:
- Watch for warning signs in your child, e.g., less interest in school, wanting to stay home from school, reduced school achievement, complaints of headaches or stomach aches, sleeping difficulties, unhappiness or irritability, few friends, non involvement in social activities with peers
- Encourage your child to talk and be prepared to listen and show that you understand your child’s distress
- Explore alternative courses of action with your child, e.g., making new friends, discussing the issue with the school counselor
- Depending on the seriousness of the bullying and the wishes of your child, you may decide to pursue the matter at your child’s school. If so, ensure that you adopt a positive attitude to work with the school to resolve the problem
- Follow up with the school to assess the outcomes of their actions.
For more details on these ideas for parents, see Rigby (14) and the Friendly Schools & Families resource kit (15).
Dr. Larry Owens is an Associate Professor and Associate Head in the School of Education at Flinders University in Adelaide, South Australia. His research focuses on gender differences in aggressive behaviour, with particular interest in teenage girls' use of indirect forms of aggression.
- Owens, L. D. (1996). Sticks and stones and sugar and spice: Girls' and boys' aggression in schools. Australian Journal of Guidance and Counselling, 6, 45-55.
- Owens, L., Daly, A., & Slee, P. (2005). Sex and age differences in victimization and conflict resolution among adolescents in a South Australian school. Aggressive Behavior, 31 (1), 1-12.
- Owens, L., Shute, R., & Slee, P. (2000). “Guess what I just heard!": Indirect aggression among teenage girls in Australia. Aggressive Behavior, 26, (1), 67-83.
- Owens, L., Shute, R., & Slee, P. (2000a). “I’m in and you’re out ... “ Explanations for girls’ indirect aggression. Psychology, Evolution & Gender. 2 (1), 19-46.
- Owens, L., Slee, & Shute, R. (2000). “It hurts a hell of a lot ... “ The effects of indirect aggression on teenage girls. School Psychology International, 21, (4), 359-376.
- Owens, L., Slee, P., & Shute, P. (2001). Victimization among teenage girls. What can be done about indirect harassment. In J. Juvonen & S. Graham (Eds.), Peer harassment in school: The plight of the vulnerable and victimized, (pp. 215-241). New York: Guilford.
- Owens, L., Shute, R., & Slee, P. (2004). Girls’ aggressive behavior. The Prevention Researcher, 11, 3, pp. 9-10.
- Bjorkqvist, K. (1994). Sex differences in physical, verbal, and indirect aggression: A review of recent research. Sex Roles. A Journal of Research, 30, 177-188
- Galen, B. R., & Underwood, M. K. (1997). A developmental investigation of social aggression among children. Developmental Psychology, 33(4), 589-600.
- Crick, N. R., & Grotpeter, J. K. (1995). Relational aggression, gender, and social-psychological adjustment. Child Development, 66, 710-722.
- Bjorkqvist, K., & Niemela, P. (1992). Of mice and women: Aspects of female aggression. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
- Thorne, B. (1993). Gender play: Girls and boys in school. Buckingham: Open University Press.
- Pikas, A. (2002). New developments of shared concern method. School Psychology International, 23(3), 307–326.
- Rigby, K. (2007) Bullying in schools - and what to do about it. Melbourne: ACER.
- Friendly Schools & Families (2004). A parent’s guide to dealing with and preventing bullying. Child Health Promotion Research Unit, Edith Cowan University, Western Australia.