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"You're Not My Friend!" – Relational Aggression Starts As Early As Preschool

Children, especially girls, begin to withhold friendship as a weapon as early as three years old.

Parents are often startled to realize that relational aggression — using the threat of removing friendship, ostracism, and other forms of social exclusion — can appear in children as young as three years old. For children that young, the experience of being pushed away by a friend can be utterly baffling, provoking anxiety at daycare or preschool. Moreover, as parents and educators observe these more subtle forms of bullying, it’s becoming clear that they require as much attention as physical aggression. In an excellent piece in the Wall Street Journal, Laura Barbour, a counselor at an Oregon elementary school, observes, “Kids forget about scuffles on the playground but they don't forget about unkind words or being left out.”

Relational aggression appears to be more common in girls than boys, perhaps, researchers say, because the average girl is more socially developed and more verbal than a boy of the same age. These “mean girl” tactics are often considered a middle-school problem, but both parents and teachers report them in elementary school and even preschool classes. Laurel Klaasen, a counselor at an elementary school in Iowa, says, "They're already thinking at that age about being popular, being the queen of the classroom, or the queen of the playground and vying for that position."

Because this sort of jockeying involves words and relationships rather than fists and feet, kids, parents, and educators often fail to recognize it for what it is: bullying. Trudy Ludwig, author of multiple anti-bullying books, agrees that "kids don't understand that manipulating friendships and relationships is bullying and that's what I'm trying to educate the kids and the staff about." When she does classroom presentations, one way she makes her point is to ask kids whether they would rather suffer a physical attack or relational aggression; over 90% of kids say relational aggression is more hurtful. In other words, she says, "They'd rather be punched in the stomach."

While relational aggression tends to increase with age, parents and educators can do a lot to counteract it. Simple lessons in empathy — "Imagine how it would feel if someone did that to you?" — go a long way to preventing relational aggression. Sharing books that teach kids the importance of kindness helps to build that empathy, and shows them the difference they can make by offering compassion to others. It's also important for us to talk about bullying with kids in a way that highlights the nuances of it, so that they recognize the difference between a hurtful misunderstanding and the power dynamics exploited by a bully. And, if we show kids what genuine friendship looks like, they'll be better able to recognize when a "friendship" doesn't offer them the caring and support they deserve.

Most importantly, parents and teachers have to understand that relational aggression isn’t something kids, especially younger-grade kids, can work through on their own. Samantha Walravens’ kindergarten daughter Genevieve ended up caught in a best-friends triangle that left her crying with a stomachache, not wanting to go to school. With some cooperation from the teacher, they encouraged the other girls to understand how Genevieve felt, and encouraged Genevieve to develop other friendships to support her. Walravens says, “I always tell her you can go to me or the teacher and we will help you work it out. A lot of the stuff they can't work out on their own.”

Books For Kids and parents on Relational Aggression

Willow Finds A Way

Willow Finds A Way

Written by: Lana Button
Illustrated by: Tania Howells
Recommended Age: 3 - 8

Willow's class is excited when Kristabelle starts handing out invitations to her amazing birthday party, but then Kristabelle starts using the threat of taking invitations away to dominate her peers. Willow can’t find the words to speak up, but she demonstrates her disapproval by crossing her own name off the invitation list — and when Kristabelle realizes what a mistake she’s made, it’s Willow who leads the class in welcoming back their friend. This story about the power of the bystander is a great way to talk about taking action, as well as to remind kids that mistakes can be forgiven if you show you’re sorry.

Have You Filled a Bucket Today: A Guide to Daily Happiness for Kids

Have You Filled a Bucket Today: A Guide to Daily Happiness for Kids

Written by: Carol McCloud
Illustrated by: David Messing
Recommended Age: 4 - 8

This popular book uses the metaphor of invisible buckets to describe self-esteem. Author Carol McCloud teaches kids that people feel good when the bucket is full and sad or angry when it’s empty. By showing how you can “fill” a bucket (through kindness, compassion, and appreciation of others) or “dip” from a bucket (by being mean or exclusionary), kids can easily understand how their actions affect others’ emotions. Younger kids can learn about bucket filling in Fill A Bucket: A Guide to Daily Happiness for Young Children for ages 2 to 6, while older kids can expand on the lessons with Growing Up With A Bucket Full of Happiness: Three Rules for a Happier Life for ages 8 and up.

I Walk With Vanessa

A Story About A Simple Act of Kindness

I Walk With Vanessa

A Story About A Simple Act of Kindness

Written by: Kerascoët
Illustrated by: Kerascoët
Recommended Age: 4 - 8

Vanessa's first day at a new school is a little lonely, but on the way home, things get worse. A boy shouts at her, and she runs home upset — and one of her classmates sees the whole thing. Both girls are heartbroken, but the bystander realizes there are ways she can help... and the next morning, she invites Vanessa to walk to school alongside her. This wordless picture book's expressive images capture the helplessness that kids can feel when they see someone being bullied, as well as the power of simple acts of kindness and the strength that comes from standing together.

Weird!

Weird!

Written by: Erin Frankel
Illustrated by: Paula Heaphy
Recommended Age: 5 - 8

In this book — one of a unique trilogy that shows bullying from the perspectives of bully, bullied, and bystander — popular girl Sam teases Luisa for everything from answering questions in math class to wearing polka-dot boots. Jayla initially joins in, but eventually refuses to participate any longer and befriends Luisa, helping her rebuild her confidence. In combination with the other two books — Dare!, in which Jayla recounts her fears about becoming Sam's target (as she has been in the past), and Tough!, in which Sam learns empathy and rethinks her treatment of others, this book creates a nuanced look at the emotions around bullying incidents.

My Secret Bully

My Secret Bully

Written by: Trudy Ludwig
Illustrated by: Abigail Marble
Recommended Age: 5 - 8

Bullying can be so subtle that kids don't understand what's happening. Monica and Katie have been friends for years, but now, Katie embarrasses or excludes Monica in front of their classmates. Monica is hurt and confused — why would her friend do such a thing? Fortunately, with some help from her supportive mother, Monica learns that Katie is deliberately being unkind, and that this behavior isn't appropriate from a friend. With a few strategies to handle Katie, Monica feels confident again. One of the few books for younger children that addresses more subtle relational aggression, this book firmly drives home the message that no one deserves to be the target of this behavior.

Each Kindness

Each Kindness

Written by: Jacqueline Woodson
Illustrated by: E. B. Lewis
Recommended Age: 5 - 9

Chloe and her friends won’t play with Maya, who wears hand-me-down clothes and plays with old toys; eventually, Maya stops asking, and soon after, Maya moves away. But when Chloe’s teacher invites her students to think about how small kindnesses might affect the world in unexpected ways, Chloe has a revelation — she can’t think of a single time that she was kind to Maya, and now that Maya is gone, the opportunity to offer her even a small kindness is gone forever. However, the book also ends with a positive implication: if everyone resolves to extend kindness to everyone they meet, the ripples will extend around the world. For another story about a girl recognizing, too late, that she missed an opportunity to offer kindness, check out The Hundred Dresses for ages 6 to 10.

Trouble Talk

Trouble Talk

Written by: Trudy Ludwig
Recommended Age: 6 - 9

Anti-bullying expert Trudy Ludwig wrote this book to illustrate how comments that can seem funny can still be hurtful. Maya’s friend Bailey loves to spread rumors about the troubles in other children’s lives, but when Bailey hears Maya’s parents fighting and turns it into a rumor that they’re going to get divorced, Maya realizes how painful this “trouble talk” can be. Both the school counselor’s advice to be friends with “kids who make you feel safe,” and seeing how hard Bailey has to work to heal the hurt feelings she’s caused, are good lessons for school-aged kids.

Stand Up for Yourself and Your Friends

Dealing with Bullies and Bossiness and Finding a Better Way

Stand Up for Yourself and Your Friends

Dealing with Bullies and Bossiness and Finding a Better Way

Written by: Patti Kelley Criswell
Illustrated by: Angela Martini
Recommended Age: 7 - 12

This book from the American Girl Library is a great starting point for tweens looking for advice on dealing with bullies. Rather than telling girls that there is a “right” way to handle a bully, this book gives a variety of different options, from ignoring taunts to comebacks to involving adults, as well as advice as to how to decide which strategy to use. The book acknowledges that not all mean behavior is necessarily malicious, though, and also provides a guide to knowing how to stand up to a friend who is behaving badly without being mean yourself.

Confessions of a Former Bully

Confessions of a Former Bully

Written by: Trudy Ludwig
Illustrated by: Beth Adams
Recommended Age: 8 - 12

In this unique book, Katie starts keeping a notebook about bullying after she’s required to visit the school counselor for bullying a friend on the playground. As Katie explores why she acted as she did, and learns more about bullying in general, she also develops ideas about how to atone for her mistakes. The story also includes sidebars with statistics, quotes, and other factual information about physical, emotional, and Internet bullying. This book reminds middle grade readers how easy it is to cross the line into bullying, and helps them understand what they can do to make things right.

A Smart Girl's Guide: Drama, Rumors & Secrets

A Smart Girl's Guide: Drama, Rumors & Secrets

Written by: Nancy Holyoke
Recommended Age: 8 - 12

The drama that can appear during middle school has a big effect on their social world — and their confidence. In this book, girls will learn how jealousy, gossip, and cyberbullying can creep into the lives of tweens and teens, as well as how to avoid them and stay true to themselves. They'll also learn what separates regular talk from gossip and how to handle difficult interactions over text or online. By learning how drama starts and how it gets worse, girls can find out what they can do to stop it from taking control of them and their friends.

No More Mean Girls

The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls

No More Mean Girls

The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls

Written by: Katie Hurley

Many parents think big social stressors first hit girls during the middle school years, only to discover that tough issues like low self-esteem, cyberbullying, and peer pressure are cropping up at younger ages. This invaluable book tackles "mean girl culture" and provides practical advice for parents on how to to teach girls to seek out and build strong, positive friendships; express themselves in a healthy way; and stand up for themselves and for others, empowering young girls to be kind, confident, and resilient leaders who work together and build each other up.

Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls

Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls

Written by: Rachel Simmons

When Odd Girl Out was published in 2002, it ignited a long-overdue conversation about the hidden nature of female bullying, which more commonly manifests in hurt feelings and broken friendships than in bruises and scrapes. In this updated edition, which incorporates new issues like the prevalence of social media as a forum for bullying and relational aggression, Rachel Simmons shows parents and educators how to recognize damaging social dynamics and how to build empathy and confidence in our girls.

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