What about girls? Are they really not aggressive?
Nina S. Mounts, Ph.D., The Ohio State University
Human Development and Family Life Bulletin
A Review of Research and Practice
Volume 3, Issue 2, Summer 1997
Many of the books or papers on aggression in children focus primarily on boys. Most people assume that boys are more aggressive than girls, which leads to problems for boys, but not for girls, in their peer relationships. In fact, many of the research studies that examine aggressive children only include boys.
A MORE SUBTLE AGGRESSION
In her recent work, Dr. Nikki Crick of the University of Minnesota has challenged the assumption that girls are not aggressive (Crick, 1996; Crick & Grotpeter, 1995; Grotpeter & Crick, 1996). Dr. Crick argues that girls have not been found to be aggressive in previous studies because researchers have been looking at the wrong kind of aggression.
Most of the previous research, as well as interventions with aggressive, peer-rejected children, define aggression as either physical or verbal behavior intended to hurt another person. Crick believes that girls, in general, do not engage in this type of aggression against their peers. They do, however, employ relational aggression. Relational aggression is behavior specifically intended to hurt another child's friendships or feelings of inclusion in a peer group. An example of relational aggression would be a child spreading hurtful rumors about another child so that other children are less inclined to be friendly toward her. Or, a child might retaliate against another child by not including her in the play group. Relational aggression, then, is deliberate manipulation on the part of a child to damage another child's peer relationships.
Crick's work with elementary school children has demonstrated that the degree of aggressiveness exhibited by girls has been underestimated, mainly because it is difficult to measure. Clearly, when one child hits another, that child is behaving in an overtly aggressive way. In contrast, how do you tell when one child has started a rumor about another?
Because adults are not always privy to the comings and goings of children's peer groups, they may be unaware of any relational aggression. Although Crick detected overlap in teachers and children's reports of relational aggression in the classrooms where she conducted her research, she did not detect complete overlap. In other words, relational aggression occurred without the knowledge of the teacher.
LINKS TO PEER REJECTION
Using measures completed both by teachers and children, Crick found that girls engaged in higher levels of relational aggression than boys. Girls who engaged in relational aggression exhibited a number of adjustment difficulties, and had self-reported higher levels of depression, loneliness, and social isolation than their peers. In addition, peers disliked relationally aggressive girls more than other girls.
Girls who engaged in relational aggression early in the school year were more likely to be rejected by their peers later in the school year than girls who did not engage in relational aggression early on. Not surprisingly, children who demonstrated relational aggression at one time point were likely to continue using it throughout the school year.
Because research finds relational aggression to be a relatively stable behavior in children, Crick's research has implications for practitioners who conduct interventions with peer-rejected children. Clearly, children who engage in relational aggression are candidates for peer relationship intervention programs to prevent future peer rejection.
Previous research on children's peer relationships has shown that having at least one friend buffers a child from some of the negative effects of peer rejection. Because relational aggression involves manipulating friendships, Crick and Grotpeter (1995) were interested in examining the friendships of relationally aggressive children. Friendships of relationally aggressive children did not differ from those of nonaggressive children on measures of caring, companionship, and helping one another. Relationally aggressive children's friendships did differ from nonrelationally aggressive children in several ways, however. First, relationally aggressive children and their best friends reported higher levels of intimacy in their friendships than did other children. This high level of intimacy probably puts the nonaggressive friend at risk because the relationally aggressive child has ready access to important, private information about the other child. A relationally aggressive child could easily use threats to disclose the information to manipulate her friend. Second, a high level of exclusivity exists in the friendship with the relationally aggressive child. Again, this may put the other friend at risk to be manipulated because she may have limited friends to turn to as alternatives. A final feature of these friendships is their high degree of internal relational aggression. Relationally aggressive children direct many of their aggressive behaviors toward their friends. These findings are dramatically different from those of overtly aggressive children and their friends. Overtly aggressive children tend to behave aggressively toward those external to the friendship rather than toward each other. The aggressive behavior is directed outside the dyad.
This line of research clearly will be of interest to practitioners as it develops. Although no interventions have been developed to date using this information, practitioners should develop prevention interventions with relationally aggressive children.
Crick, N. R., & Grotpeter, J.K. (1995). Relational aggression, gender, and social-psychological adjustment. Child Development, 66, 710-722.
Crick, N. R. (1996). The role of overt aggression, relational aggression, and prosocial behavior in the prediction of children's future social adjustment. Child Development, 67, 2317-2327.