Indirect Aggression Amongst Teenage Girls and How Parents Can Help
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).