Case study: Relational Aggression

Adolescents today face many challenges with regard to both academics and peer groups. Unfortunately, one aspect of peer relations is aggression, and many times we often only think of physical aggression. However, relational aggression can also characterize the peer interactions of adolescents, and thus it has gained more attention in research. Relational aggression can be defined as a purposeful act that an individual carries out intentionally in order to inflict harm upon another individual through a social relationship (Bowie, 2007). The present literature review will discuss some of the research that has demonstrated how relational aggression contributes uniquely and negatively to social-psychological adjustment problems in youth (Crick, Ostrov, & Werner, 2006; Prinstein, Boergers, & Vernberg, 2001; Reynolds & Repetti, 2010; Rose & Swenson, 2009). The protective factors identified by research that appear to mitigate the negative effects of relational aggression will also be discussed. Being popular (Rose & Swenson, 2009), having a close friend (Prinstein et al., 2001), and having a positive academic self-concept (Taylor, Davis-Kean, & Malanchuk, 2007) have all been found to act as protective factors in the face of relational aggression. Lastly, relational aggression in the context of school will be examined. Given that relational aggression makes unique contributions to social-psychological adjustment problems in the absence of such protective factors, it would be valuable to explore whether or not relational aggression also has unique negative effects on academic engagement and achievement. This could have important implications for prevention and intervention efforts, as well as educational policy and classroom management strategies.

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Since the conception of research on relational aggression, researchers have found that engaging in relational aggression can have negative effects on various social-psychological adjustment outcomes for adolescents. A study by Crick et al. (2006) targeted a sample of 224 children, who were part of a larger longitudinal study, as they progressed from third to fourth grade in order to examine how relationally aggressive behavior affected children’s social-psychological adjustment over time. The authors hypothesized that relationally and physically aggressive children would exhibit increased levels of both internalizing and externalizing difficulties. They also expected that relational aggression would create distinct psychopathological symptoms from those that are associated with physical aggression. Participants completed a self-report measure about physical and relational aggression, as well as prosocial behavior. Participants’ teachers filled out a survey to assess children’s social-psychological adjustment. Results indicated that relational aggression is indeed a significant indicator of children’s risk for future social-psychological adjustment problems, and that the outcomes of relational aggression are unique compared to those of physical aggression. The authors call for additional, similar studies to improve prevention and intervention programs that address both physical and relational aggression in boys and girls.

Similarly, a study by Prinstein et al. (2001) examined the association among relational and overt forms of aggression and adolescents’ internalizing and externalizing symptoms and behavior in a sample of 566 adolescents in a New England high school. The authors hypothesized that relational aggression would be distinctively associated with depressive symptoms, loneliness, self-esteem, and externalizing behavior. Another significant hypothesis was that having a close friendship would buffer adolescents from the negative social-psychological adjustment outcomes that are associated with relational aggression victimization. Several self-report questionnaires were administered to the participants that respectively measured overt and relational aggression and victimization, depressive symptoms, loneliness, self-esteem, externalizing symptoms, and close friend social support. Results demonstrated that adolescents make a distinction between overt and relational forms of aggression and victimization. Relational aggression was found to have its own unique effects on victims, including higher levels of depressive symptoms, higher levels of loneliness, and lower global self-worth. The hypothesis was supported that having a close friend did act as a buffer against negative psychological adjustment problems associated with relational aggression.

A study by Reynolds and Repetti (2010) gathered descriptive information from 114 girls in a Los Angeles public high school about the forms, frequency, perceived motives and functions, and types of emotions felt when relationally aggressing or when being victimized. An online survey was utilized that elicited scale ratings and descriptive responses from the participants about their experiences as both perpetrators and victims of relational aggression. The results showed that every participant reported being involved as both a perpetrator and a victim in each form of relational aggression at least once in the past year. The most frequent form reported was talking behind another girl’s back, while the next most frequent behaviors were spreading rumors about a girl and intentionally ignoring her. The most frequently reported function was trying to get back at someone. Additionally, the participants reported that ignoring, as compared to rumors and exclusion, was related to the strongest negative feelings experienced at the time of the incident, like sadness. Ignoring emerged as a unique form of relational aggression in this study, which merits further investigation. Implications of this and similar studies demonstrate that intervention and prevention efforts should focus on the most frequently reported behaviors by adolescents.

Due to the evidence suggesting that relational aggression has unique, negative effects on social-psychological adjustment in children and adolescents, it is important to look at what protective factors might exist for children and adolescents that buffer these negative effects. In addition to the finding that a close friend can buffer the negative effects of relational aggression (Prinstein et al., 2001), other protective factors have been identified through research. For example, a study by Rose and Swenson (2009) looked specifically at perceived popular adolescents who relationally aggress and whether or not their participation in relational aggression leads to emotional adjustment problems. The authors studied a sample of 439 students in seventh and ninth grade in the United States. It was hypothesized that perceived popularity would moderate the association between relational aggression and internalizing symptoms. Peer nomination surveys were used to assess peer status and aggression, and the Children’s Depression Inventory was used to assess internalizing symptoms. Results demonstrated that perceived popular adolescents who relationally aggress do not experience emotional adjustment problems, but youth who were perceived as less popular did experience elevated internalizing symptoms. This finding suggests that popularity acts as a buffer against the negative effects of relationally aggressive behavior. For this reason, the authors discuss future directions in research that could examine which other variables protect popular, relationally aggressive peers from experiencing internalizing symptoms.

Similarly, Cillessen and Mayeux (2007) also investigated peer status and aggression, however they did so around the transitions from elementary to middle school, and from middle school to high school. They looked at how these constructs are related to adolescents’ academic and social expectations in their new school system. The total sample size was 2,434 with students from fifth, sixth, eighth, and ninth grade. The authors hypothesized first that pre-transition expectations and post-transition perceptions of academic and social functioning would be moderately correlated. Secondly, they hypothesized that both social preference and perceived popularity would be positively correlated with social expectations, and thirdly, that both overt and relational aggression would be positively associated with social expectations. Participants completed a sociometric assessment that measured social preference, perceived popularity, overt aggression, and relational aggression. Participants also completed a set of self-report questionnaires that measured pre-transition expectations and post-transition perceptions of academic and social functioning. Results demonstrated that their first hypothesis was correct. They also found that popular adolescents had more positive expectations of transitions, and also rated themselves as doing better socially after the transition. Relational aggression was negatively correlated with the academic functioning of sixth grade girls. No other main effects were found for relational aggression. Consequently, the authors called for more research on relational aggression in the social and academic lives of students, especially for girls.

Relational aggression can have impacts on the development of friendships as well, as demonstrated by Sijtsema et al. (2010) in their longitudinal study. They examined how aggression in different forms and functions (instrumental, reactive, overt, relational) impacts friendship development in a sample of 337 participants, ages 12 to 14 years. The authors hypothesized that instrumental, relational, and overt forms of aggression would be associated with making friends who are equally aggressive. They also hypothesized that reactive aggression would predict a high number of unidirectional friendship nominations in which the aggressor nominates others, but is never nominated by others. Additionally, the authors hypothesized that social influence effects will appear uniquely in relational aggression contexts. Various questionnaires were administered to the participants to gather information about friendship networks, previous acquaintances, and occurrences of instrumental, reactive, overt, and relational aggression. Results demonstrated that all four conceptualizations of aggression had unique and meaningful effects on friendship selection and social influence during early adolescence. Of particular interest was that relationally aggressive adolescents selected similarly aggressive friends, and that relational aggression was subject to social influence. Therefore, it was found that relational aggression uniquely affects early adolescent friendships, regardless of the function of the relationally aggressive behavior.

Given that relational aggression can occur in school contexts because that is where peer groups are situated, it is important to examine various aspects of the schooling experience in order to better understand why relational aggression occurs. Accordingly, Totura, et al. (2009) conducted a study that used an ecological framework to examine how middle school students’ (N = 2,506) perceptions of their family and school contexts moderated their involvement in and the effects of bullying and victimization. The authors hypothesized that students with internalizing and/or externalizing problems would be less likely to be categorized as bullies and/or victims if they had a stable family context, and if their school had high levels of support and monitoring. They hypothesized that students would be more likely to be identified as bullies and/or victims if their school and family contexts were characterized by low levels of support, monitoring, and school belongingness. The investigators used student and teacher surveys to measure bullying and victimization, internalizing and externalizing problems, family functioning, school bonding, adult monitoring at school, aggressiveness of the school climate, and academic performance. Results of this study demonstrated that there are many relations among emotionality, bullying, and students’ perceptions, as well as some significant gender differences. One result particularly important result is that bullies and bully/victims exhibited lower academic achievement and were less bonded with school. This points to a potential area of research that explores whether or not increasing children’s academic engagement, achievement and bonding with school can actually decrease relational aggression. Another important implication of this study is that it demonstrates how important students’ perceptions of their environment are and the impact that their perceptions can have on their experiences with bullying and victimization.

Furthermore, Taylor et al. (2007) explored how self-esteem and self-concept may influence aggression in a school setting. The authors used a diverse sample of 842 children, which was part of a larger longitudinal study, in middle schools in an East coast state. The authors hypothesized first that students with negative academic self-concepts would be more likely to aggress in school than children with more positive academic self-concepts. Their second hypothesis was that students whose high academic self-concept is threatened would be more likely to aggress at school. The study utilized interviews and self-report questionnaires from both the participants and the participants’ primary care givers to measure the constructs of aggression, self-esteem, academic self-concept, and academic performance. Results supported the authors’ first hypothesis in that low academic self-concept was correlated with increased aggression in school. However, their second hypothesis was not supported. These findings are significant because they demonstrate that if we can increase children’s academic self-concepts, perhaps aggression would decrease.

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All of the studies mentioned above have made significant contributions to the study of relational aggression, specifically with regard to the social-psychological effects of relational aggression, protective factors, how relational aggression impacts friendship development, and how school contexts can impact relational aggression. These studies all have some analogous strengths and limitations that can point us to future directions in research. Longitudinal methods were used in the study by Crick et al. (2006), as well as the study by Sijtsema et al. (2010), demonstrating definite strengths for these two studies. However, Crick and his colleagues did mention that a limitation of their study was that the interval was only one year, and so future studies would benefit from having longer time intervals to see how relational aggression affects children through different developmental periods. Sijtsema et al. (2010) acknowledged that a limitation of their study was that peer relations were examined with respect to school grade, so aggression that occurs outside of school might not have been captured in the study.

Both studies by Prinstein et al. (2001), and Totura et al. (2009) addressed the fact that their cross-sectional designs were an inherent limitation. Specifically, Totura et al. (2009) stated that the cross-sectional nature of their study prohibits researchers from determining which came first, internalizing and externalizing difficulties or bullying/victimization. In this way, future longitudinal studies would be exceptionally beneficial to the field so that we can further examine what factors lead to engaging in relational aggression. Similar to the study by Totura et al. (2009), the study conducted by Rose and Swenson (2009) discussed a limitation of their study that the results cannot speak to causation, only to correlation. Their study did have two important strengths in their sample size and their use of validated measures of depression and anxiety. The study by Totura et al. (2009) also had a very large sample size at N = 2,506.

The study by Prinstein et al. (2001) used a very ethnically diverse sample. Future studies would benefit from also making every effort to obtain a diverse sample in order to best understand relational aggression in adolescents. Additionally, future studies would benefit from including school transitions and perceptions, like Cillessen and Mayeux (2007) did in their study. A limitation of their study was their exclusive use of self-report measures, which will be discussed later in this literature review. The authors did acknowledge, though, that future research would benefit from including more objective measures of social and academic outcomes. Lastly, a strength of the (2010) study by Reynolds and Repetti was that the investigators collected novel, descriptive data through an online survey that informed them of the unique experiences of relational aggression among high school girls. A limitation of this study was its relatively small sample size (N = 114), and the fact that the study only addressed girls.

All of these studies (Crick et al., 2006; Prinstein et al., 2001; Reynolds & Repetti, 2010; Sijtsema et al., 2010; Taylor et al., 2007; Totura et al., 2009; Cillessen & Mayeux, 2007; Rose & Swenson, 2009) actually used self-report questionnaires as at least part of their methodology. Self-report methodologies are certainly valuable, however future research would benefit from the use of different methodologies as well, as suggested by Cillessen and Mayeux (2007), in order to ensure that we understand relational aggression from multiple perspectives. Crick et al. (2006) also used teacher reports in order to assess the children’s social-psychological adjustment. Equivalently, Totura et al. (2009) used teacher surveys in addition to student surveys to measure bullying and victimization, and internalizing and externalizing symptomology, in addition to other various constructs. Rose and Swenson (2009) used peer nomination surveys in order to assess peer status and aggression, and this was in addition to the self-report measure used to assess internalizing symptoms. Taylor et al. (2007), in addition to having the adolescents complete self-report questionnaires and having their primary caregivers complete surveys, also interviewed the adolescents themselves. The use of interviews could provide valuable in-depth information about the experiences that children and adolescents have with relational aggression. Another methodology that has not yet been utilized in past research is focus groups. This could involve having six to eight adolescents talk about their experiences with relational aggression. Methodologies like focus groups and interviews would be extremely valuable when used in addition to self-report, peer-report, teacher-report and/or parent-report surveys. In this way, researchers would be able to gather information from a variety of sources in order to understand relational aggression.

Few studies have addressed how relational aggression might impact the academic achievement and engagement of adolescents. Exceptions to this include the study by Totura et al. (2009) that investigated how middle school students’ perceptions of their family and school contexts moderate their involvement in and the effects of bullying and victimization. Importantly, the authors defined bullying as “engaging in the following behaviors: kicking/pushing/hitting, name calling, teasing, socially isolating others, and spreading false rumors” (Totura et al., 2009, p. 579). In this way, the authors do capture important aspects of relational aggression. The results of this study have important implications for future studies that look at how relational aggression impacts academic achievement and engagement. Moreover, Taylor et al. (2007) investigated how self-esteem and academic self-concept influence aggression in a school setting. However, a limitation of this study is that the researchers operationalized aggression as acts of aggression that resulted in formal school discipline, although they acknowledged the various forms of aggression and the fact that not all aggression results in formal discipline. It must be addressed, though, that acts of relational aggression might not have been captured to the full extent in this study. Nevertheless, the methodology used and the results found in this study provide support for promising directions in the research of a possible link between relational aggression and academic achievement.

Overall, the studies mentioned above utilize similar methodologies in order to address various aspects of relational aggression. The studies above investigated how relational aggression affects social-psychological adjustment adolescents, what protective factors exist to buffer adolescents from the negative effects of relational aggression, how engaging in relational aggression affects friendship development, and lastly how a few school-related constructs affect one’s experience with relational aggression. The purpose of this literature review was to provide an analysis of what research has been done with regard to relational aggression. Because it has been shown that relational aggression has unique, negative effects on the social-psychological adjustment of adolescents, it is imperative that we examine what other negative effects might be a result of engaging in relational aggression, either as a perpetrator or as a victim. Specifically, research on how relational aggression impacts academic engagement in the classroom, and consequently academic achievement, would be very valuable. School bonding and school spirit are other constructs that could be explored. If a negative association is found between relational aggression and academic engagement, this could have implications for educational policy and school behavioral management systems. Furthermore, it would be beneficial to explore whether or not increasing the academic self-concept of an adolescent would cause a subsequent decrease in their engagement in relational aggression. Future studies would benefit form utilizing multiple methodologies, including interviews or focus groups in order to gain a deeper understanding about what it is like to experience relational aggression. The area of how relational aggression might impact academic engagement has yet to really be explored, and so studies in this area would be indispensable in informing research and also practices in the field.



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