Relational Aggression in Children: The Ophelia Project® Makes a Difference

by Carol Anne McKay

Asked to respond quickly, many of us would have trouble remembering what we had for dinner last Wednesday, what clothes we wore Monday, or what the weather was like three days ago. Asked to recount one incident from our childhood when a friend hurt our feelings, however, and we can describe the most minute detail — from a raised eyebrow to the actual inflection in the person’s voice. Despite the old adage about sticks and stones breaking our bones, it is actually the words that break our hearts and leave scars long beyond when our bones would have healed up quite nicely.

The Ophelia Project is dedicated to creating a culture that is emotionally, physically, and socially safe, where girls are respected and nurtured. Through awareness, education, and advocacy, we promote positive change in families, schools, and communities. By supporting a network of friends, mentors, and professionals, we encourage all children to become confident and healthy.”

Surprisingly, relational aggression is a term that has only been used in the past decade to describe behavior that children have engaged in for generations. Relational aggression, or RA, encompasses behaviors that harm others by damaging, or threatening to damage, one’s relationship with his or her peers. It includes spreading rumors, telling others not to play with a certain other child as a means of retaliation, and purposefully ignoring someone when angry. In each of these examples, social relationships are used as a vehicle for harming someone. RA is more common in girls than boys. Girls place a higher value on their friendships — making this a more effective weapon for them. Boys can also be relationally aggressive, but they tend to use physical means of settling conflict more often.

Who Are at Risk?

Although the research is still in the relatively early stages, we do know certain facts about relational aggression. Children as young as preschool use relational aggression; it is not linked to socioeconomic status; and both the victims and aggressors are at risk for future problems. Children who are highly relationally aggressive feel lonely and depressed and tend to feel badly about themselves and their social situations. Children who are the frequent victims of relational aggression are more at risk for depression and a poor self-concept in the areas of social relationships and physical attractiveness. Both victims and aggressors are at greater risk for substance uses, lack of school connectedness, and maladaptive eating behaviors.

Indeed, the research is showing that relational aggression can be every bit as harmful as physical aggression to a child. This is a sobering thought when you consider the amount of energy and resources put into protecting children from physical harm. As we’ve become more aware of the effect stress has on one’s physical health, one can only imagine the effect of high levels of stress and anxiety on a young developing mind and growing body.

The research has shown that RA is evident during the preschool years, appears to peak in middle school, and is prevalent among college students. Current research is being conducted to investigate RA during adulthood. RA exists in all settings in which young people interact — most obviously in the school arena, but also in after school programs and in day and resident camps.

Girls and RA

Girls are more likely to use RA “within” their friendship groups, for example, turning the entire group against one individual, whereas boys tend to aggress outside their friendship groups. For a young girl, the sudden loss of someone once considered a best friend can be devastating. It changes her entire life and suddenly issues such as whom to sit with on the bus, where to have lunch, and how to find a partner for that next science project are overwhelming. Girls are also more likely to tell each other secrets, which, sadly, can later be used against them.

The advances in technology also increase the opportunities for relationalaggression. Three-way calling is one way girls can torture each other with one girl taunting the other to say negative things about a classmate who is actually listening on the line. This, of course, only feeds the negativity and increases the animosity between the girls. The Internet can also be used when one child will pose as another and send disturbing messages. Although the impulse is for adults to downplay the importance of these actions, the impact on a young girl is huge. Usually, by the time a victim tells an adult about what is going on, the situation has escalated to a point the victim finds unbearable.

Some of the fallacies about relational aggression are that “all kids go through it; it’s part of growing up; and there’s nothing we can do about it anyway.” Unless others intervene and teach different coping mechanisms, the aggressor is rarely motivated to change because the social power gained seems to reward this type of behavior. Also, children are terrified of being the next victim — prompting even those who are disturbed by the process to go along with the aggressor or to turn a “blind eye” to what is happening around them. Some girls even admit to enjoying the drama of keeping a story or incident alive by continuing to retell it, so it may never really be over.

The Ophelia Project®

Fortunately, there are ways to change behavior, and there is something all concerned adults can do when faced with these situations. One group deciding to tackle relational aggression head on is the Ophelia Project® in Erie, Pennsylvania. What started in February of 1997 as a gathering of adults concerned about their adolescent daughters quickly evolved into a widespread, multifaceted, energetic effort on behalf of all children and their families.

The Ophelia Project® offers many programs, but it is the efforts to address peer aggression that have gotten most of the attention recently. One of the first steps to address peer aggression is to “name the beast” by bringing the issue to the forefront. The thinking behind such an approach is that if you don’t acknowledge the problem, you are inadvertently supporting it. Taking steps to address peer aggression early will prevent it from getting worse.

How Girls Hurt Each Other

The program, “How Girls Hurt Each Other”, or HGHEO, began in 1998 as a two-day awareness presentation to middle school girls. The goal of the program is to make middle school girls aware of what is happening, their role in the aggression, and ways to stop it when they are “caught in the middle.” Trained high school mentors actually facilitate the program, often speaking from their own painful experiences. These mentors command the younger girls’ attention in ways in which adults can only hope.

They talk to the girls about their middle school years, role-play examples of what happens in school, and lead the middle school girls in small group discussions about how it feels to be the victim. Then they redo the role-playing — showing how the girls in the middle can impact the aggression in a positive way. Finally, members of the audience are given the chance to create their own role-playing with better ways to handle these painful experiences. Indeed, the “girl in the middle” approach is one of the hallmarks of the Ophelia program. The vast majority of peer aggression occurs in the presence of other children, giving ample opportunity for them to rally their collective powers as bystanders.

Empowering Young People

Another program, a comprehensive approach offered to schools, empowers young people to make constructive choices. The program, “Creating a Safe Social Climate in Our Schools,” or CASS, uses an entire school community to create systemic long-term change in the social norms of their students. Six months prior to training, a school prepares by organizing parents, teachers, administrators, and students to take on the task. Like HGHEO, high school mentors are trained and are instrumental in bringing the program into classrooms. Unlike HGHEO, everyone in the school community gets the same information, has tools to use, and is working to reinforce the concepts and principles the students learn. Peer aggression, just as with physical violence, can only be eliminated when everyone involved with the young people works toward the same goal and consistently affirms the same message.

Other Programs

The Ophelia Project® has also developed an elementary school curriculum, for fourth through sixth graders to address the issue for early intervention. Recognizing that issues do not occur in isolation, especially in developing children, the Ophelia Project® also deals with other topics such as the effects of the media on children’s sense of reality and developing attitudes. They have presented conferences on mentoring, eating disorders, community building, and relational aggression. The organization also offers study circles for parents to learn and share parenting advice from some of the best resources available.

Caring Adults

Caring adults, who do not shy away from the problems facing children today, can make a difference when they apply their collective wisdom and will. If we hope to stem the tide of this aggression, our greatest ally is the adult in charge — camp counselor or the classroom teacher. The Ophelia program is only a starting point, a way to introduce the program to children. Although many of the programs have been originally created for school and community applications, all of them can be adapted to educate camp professionals and to empower campers to make constructive and caring choices. An ongoing effort to adopt a zero tolerance for relational aggression can only be accomplished cooperatively by parents, teachers, counselors, and older students/campers who are willing to mentor younger students/campers.

Suggested Reading

  • Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, by Rachel Simmons
  • Queen Bees and Wannabees: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends and Other Realities of Adolescence, by Rosalind Wiseman
  • Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children, by Michael Thompson, Lawrence J. Cohen, and Catherine O’Neill Grace
  • The Friendship Factor: Helping Our Children Navigate Their Social World — And Why It Matters for Their Success and Happiness, by Kenneth H. Rubin and Andrea Thompson

Originally published in the 2003 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.