When we think about the way our kids might face conflict with their peers, we may have a tendency to assume our sons’ conflict is likely to be physical, whereas our daughters’ conflict will be more mental and emotional.
There are the schoolyard bullies who rule the recess, lunchroom and hallway dynamics, shoving meek boys into lockers or roughing them up for no good reason. And then there are the “Mean Girls” who rule the female social hierarchy, spreading rumours about girls they don’t like, excluding them from activities or belittling them on social media.
But boys can suffer the same “relational aggression” as girls, according to Katie Hurley, a child and adolescent psychotherapist and parenting educator, and the author of the book “No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident and Compassionate Girls.”
Hurley tells the Washington Post that relational aggression is “a form of bullying that includes exclusion and manipulation rather than overt or physical attacks.” And it is more prevalent among boys than we may realise.
Relational aggression is a nonphysical, covert form of bullying used to damage the reputation of another child or harm and manipulate that child’s relationships with others. It includes a pattern of behaviour (not just a single incident) and a power imbalance between the perpetrator and the victim.
* Relational aggression can include:
* Gossip and rumours
* Cruel comments
* Social exclusion
* Sarcasm intended to hurt the other person
* Ignoring one child repeatedly
* Manipulation, such as seeking personal information from the victim and sharing it with others
Boys can often feel pressured to deal with relational issues on their own or to develop a thicker skin. But boys also crave close friendship and connection, and being on the receiving end of that “Mean Boy” behaviour can cause anxiety, loneliness, depression and changes in sleeping and eating habits.
Hurley says parents who notice these changes can help their sons (and daughters) navigate the toxic relationships to verbalize their emotions, reduce their stress, practice being assertive and build a strong support network.
Many kids struggle to leave negative friendships behind because they feel like failures. Help your son create a friendship map to think of all the places he has friends (school, sports, other activities). Talk about the positive friendships on the map and how he feels when he’s with those kids. Teach him to distinguish those interactions from the ones that are more negative, and empower him to walk away from unhealthy relationships.
Don’t forget to encourage them to show empathy for other boys who may be on the receiving end of relational aggression. As school counselor Ricky Stakem tells the Washington Post, it’s important to help them recognise their friends’ boundaries, too:
“Boys love banter, friendly insults and trash talking, and this is really the root of a lot of boy issues, because there are different tolerance levels for sarcasm,” says Stakem. “If a boy sees someone with a black eye and says, ‘Your face is messed up,’ that kid’s feelings might get hurt even if the first kid isn’t trying to be mean.” Explain that if a friend looks upset or stops engaging, it’s time to back down.