Social bullying leaves little evidence behind. It’s discreet and worst of all – its effects can humiliate a child and damage their social or mental health in the long run.
The pain of a blue eye seems insignificant in comparison to the kind of trauma left from this.
As a parent, the biggest problem is that it’s hard to know when social bullying is happening. And even if you do know about it – you'll need a lot more than some ointment to solve everything.
But some kids are more at risk than others here. If you have a child in elementary school, and especially a daughter between the ages of 9-14, then this article needs your full attention.
This is the age that social bullying peaks. In fact, a shocking 48% of elementary female students are subjected to social bullying in the US every year.
As a parent, it's your responsibility to help your child navigate this complicated and emotional time. Here's exactly what you need to know.
The Definition of Social Bullying (or Relational Aggression)
The definition of social bullying is any subtle behaviour used to socially detach or isolate another individual. Although it’s difficult to see, it can manifest in many different ways.
Social bullying, or relational aggression, is defined as any discrete gestures that a bully inflicts onto a victim. The goal is to make them feel socially isolated and damage their relationships with others.
While it is definitely seen in both genders and at different ages – girls are more likely to engage in it or be affected by it, than boys.
If you’re interested in understanding why it’s a bigger problem amongst girls than boys. We discuss it in more detail under the subsection: Causes and Effects.
Common forms of social bullying include:
The 7 most important things to remember about social bullying:
- It’s rather common. Some school reports even say that it’s noted to be the most common form of bullying they see.
- It’s not the same thing as verbal bullying.
- It can happen in small and large social groups (even romantic relationships).
- It can be a direct form of bullying. (E.g. taunting or insulting) Or, an indirect form of bullying. (E.g. ignoring or spreading rumours).
- Because it’s easy to cover-up, it’s not seen as much. Therefore, it's not reported as much either.
- Many adults (teachers and parents) ignore it because they believe it’s a normal part of social interactions between kids.
- A constant feeling of social isolation or exclusion can have a serious impact on a child’s mental health and social wellbeing.
A Shocking True-Life Example of Social Bullying
The best way to understand social bullying is through real-life examples. Here is the story of social bullying victim, Corinne Celise Wilson, who committed suicide at age 13. And, an anonymous confession of how another victim actively copes with her bullies today.
Corinne Wilson’s Death
Corinne was an intelligent young girl with a beaming personality. She blossomed at school until she was 9 years’ old and had to move.
Elementary school in a new city changed everything for her. She couldn’t find any peers who wanted to bring her into their social circles. She was excluded and villainised by everyone.
Not even joining the softball team made a difference. She wasn’t great at the sport and the girls spent more time excluding her and making fun of her than anything else.
Corinne Made Friends with the ‘Mean Girls’
It took a long time, but she started to make friends with girls who fit the typical "Mean Girls group". I.e., they displayed typical narcissistic relational aggression.
As Corinne excelled at school and developed into a beautiful young lady that got the boys' attention. Things got even worse.
Her ‘friends’ tried to build her insecurities and make her feel alone. They excluded her from the group, made fun of her and made her cry the one day, and then befriended her the next.
It was before 7th Grade when Corinne was selected from 500 contestants to sing in a karaoke contest in Waco.
“It all came to a head on October 6th, 2004. That morning, in phys ed, one of the girls slapped Corinne and called her a whore,” says Corinne’s mother, Rochelle Sides.
Her friends’ jealousy grew even more. All day, they told her that she was fat, ugly, had ratty hair, couldn’t sing and that they wished she were dead.
They even wrote her a note stating that she should go home and kill herself. It became the theme of the day. After years of this abuse, this is what tipped Corinne over the edge.
And on that day, Corinne shot herself and took her own life at home. She was only 13 years old. “ Instead of listening to our daughter perform at the rodeo, her father and I buried her.”
Social bullying quote: An anonymous confession
“They all look at me, they all point fingers, and they all talk. They are waiting, watching, and hoping I breakdown.
I run out the class full of tears and start shaking badly while they laugh. But, other times I put on a smile and just give the world’s biggest lie: I’m fine’.
I try not to give them the reaction they want to see. It doesn’t get easier but with the help of my sister I know I’ll just somehow make it through okay.
They talk about me as the freak, the kid who doesn’t speak, the kid who stinks, the kid who is ugly, the kid who is stupid, and to them I’m all those things.
But to me – I [have] got me, myself and I. I can just pick up a book and it feels like I fell into a world full of whatever I want.”
The Facts About Relational Aggression
Relational aggression is the second most common form of bullying in the US, and the most common form of bullying amongst girls. Here are the stats you need to know about.
- 41–48% of girls and 31–42% of boys are subjected to some form of relational aggression per month in elementary school. It is the second most common kind of bullying in the US.
- Across all grade levels, 6th-grade students proved to have the highest bullying rates (39%). And, the highest rates of relational aggression too.
- Research shows that social bullying peaks at early adolescence. This is because it's a time where kids start to rely on friends or romantic partners for social support:
21% of all 6th-grade students said that they have been targets of hurtful rumours.
This statistic drops to 17% amongst 9th-grade students. And again, to 13% amongst 12th-grade students.
Statistics shared above are from the US Department of Education’s National Survey of Student Safety.
Comparing relational aggression statistics between girls and boys
Without a shred of doubt, social bullying is more common amongst girls. It is such a widespread issue for girls all around the world, that it even inspired the book Queen Bees and Wannabees by Rosalind Wisemen.
If you’re familiar with the 2004 teen film, Mean Girls, then it may surprise you to know that it a movie based on Wiseman’s book. Means Girls became widely popular because of its authentic portrayal of social bullying amongst girls.
It’s almost 16 years later and that movie is still as relevant for any girl going through school today. Social bullying was, and still is, a big problem.
Here are the statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics (2017). They compare the different types of bullying between the genders.
You’ll notice that with the 3 main types of social bullying researched, girls always rank higher than boys. The categories look at children that were:
Social Bullying Causes and Effects
How you are taught to communicate and express yourself from a young age can contribute to how you engage in social bullying.
This seems to be especially true amongst girls. And for such a silent form of bullying – it can have some serious effects on our children.
Social bullies, like any other type of bully, will have one of the following motives behind their actions:
- They want to get attention – whether it’s positive or negative is irrelevant. It creates excitement.
- They want to impress their peers as they feel it will gain them respect.
- They’re attempting to build their peer popularity.
- They want to punish anyone that they are jealous of.
- They feel the need to submit to peer pressure.
- They have self-esteem issues or anger issues.
- They have been bullied themselves, and haven’t been pulled out of
the cycle of abuse.
The important thing to remember with social bullies, is that they aim to socially isolate or alienate someone else.
The easiest way to achieve this is by targeting someone with perceived differences from conventional social norms and ideals.
In other words, if someone has visible qualities that makes them unique, they stand out and become an easier target.
This definitely ties in with prejudicial bullying because any minority group will stand out in a school environment as well.
Certain minorities that are commonly targeted, include:
- Youth with developmental disabilities;
- Youth who have underdeveloped social skills, or a social disorder;
- Youth who identify as LGBT (lesbian, gay bisexual, transsexual); or
- Youth who suffer from an eating disorder or are notably overweight or underweight.
But unlike verbal or physical bullying, these attacks are subtle and easy to overlook unless you’re really paying close attention.
And it’s this subtle form of bullying that seems to be one of the main reasons it’s dominated by girls.
Why social bulling is big amongst girls?
Rachel Simmons is a leadership development expert for girls and women. In her book, Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, she shares some valuable insights into this phenomenon.
She explains that because girls are discouraged from showing emotions like anger or jealousy in a social context. It pressures them into acting like nice girls all the time, no matter how they truly feel.
This is mainly because they fear it could damage their friendships or their own reputation.
Most girls are taught to put a great deal of importance on social status and the relationships they build. And it means that acceptable ways to deal with social conflict are rarely taught.
There are certain gender stereotypes that still prove to be true today when it comes to bullying:
Boys are more likely to engage in physical bullying.
And girls are more likely to engage in social bullying.
The warning signs that your child is affected by social bullying?
If you’re concerned that your child is being socially bullied at school – start looking out for some of these actions within their social group:
- Peers are talking badly about one another, repeatedly and disrespectfully.
- Peers are going behind one another’s backs to get what they want. For example: snooping in someone else’s personal property.
- Peers are making fun of others for who they are. This can be anything from physical features to dress sense or capabilities.
- Peers are going out of their way to ostracise another from the group.
- Hurtful messages are shared about someone. Even directly to them in note form, or on social media.
- A concerted effort is made to shame another person publicly – including slut-shaming.
- Peers form cliques and groups that are difficult to interact with or join. These groups are often used to intimidate others or pressure group members into participating in the bullying.
- Peers set out a list of rules that anyone else needs to follow if they want to be part of that social group.
What are the effects of being socially bullied at school?
Before we dive in, it’s important to know that you shouldn’t feel bad if you don’t know just how serious the effects of social bullying can be – most parents don’t.
The most important thing is that once you know, you make sure all the necessary precautions are taken to help your child. This is a serious matter and it deserves your time and patience.
The main primary effects of social bullying include:
- Feeling fundamentally rejected by peers.
- Feeling unattractive or unlikable by peers.
- Feeling socially inept or inadequate.
These three effects then lead to compromised mental health:
- Developing low self-esteem, until it becomes a chronic issue.
- Suffering from loneliness, anxiety and/or depression.
- Developing eating and sleeping disorders especially brought on by the
Finally, compromised mental health affects one’s lifestyle enough to restart the cycle:
- Poor academic performance at school.
- Inability to make new friends or keep any existing ones.
- Social isolation, exclusion and sense of inadequacy leading to a deep sense of an unfulfilled life.
- Finally, suicidal tendencies.
Studies done on the effects of social bullying also show that:
- Children who feel left out of a lesson, group activity or participation of any kind will feel less engaged with the work they are meant to be doing.
- Girls bullied within a close friendship group can also develop heightened levels of distress and social anxiety.
- The effects of social bullying at school can carry into adulthood and result in extended anxiety and depression.
- Within close friendship groups, it is characterised by an increased amount of jealousy and conflict.
Relational Aggression prevention and solutions
To solve a relational aggression holistically, you need to look at both preventative and corrective actions. More often than not, they will need to be used together.
When you hear that your child is being (or could be) bullied – it’s normal to feel outraged and motivated to give their bully a stern talking to (or worse).
You want to defend your child, and you will do whatever it takes to make it happen.
But if you have a teenager, then you may hit a few speed bumps using this approach... If you haven't already done so.
The key issue with strong reactions is that your child is probably feeling overwhelmed and humiliated about themselves as it is.
A strong response from you will only heighten the emotions they already feel and trigger them to behave defensively.
Now, it’s not to say you shouldn’t react – which are usually dubbed by your teens as “mom or dad freaking out” – we’re saying it’s how you do it.
Remember that your main goal is to:
All of these things need cooperation from your child. And your child’s biggest fear when opening up to you as their parent is that you will take action without consulting them first.
Staying calm is the first proper step to encourage your daughter to open up, trust you and talk about the situation logically.
Tips on how to keep calm
- Start by listening. Let your child talk and say everything they want to let out before
you ask any questions or make a comment. We can understand this is tricky, but you will have a far better idea about how you should react.
- Remember to be objective. Try to think about the situation with as little bias or projection as possible. It’s okay to be on your child’s side, of course, but don’t let it skewer you for seeing the situation for what it truly is.
Hold your own feelings, opinions and personal experiences with bullying back for now. There is a fine line between showing empathy and building the situation up to a point where everyone feels worse about it after chatting than before.
- Do some exercises that help you calm down. Especially ones that you already use in other difficult situations. Whether you do deep breathing, visualisation or positive self-talk – it doesn’t matter. Just do something that will help you through the conversation too.
Beyond remaining calm, here is what you need to do to help prevent or stop relational aggression.
Try and intervene at an early stage
The longer you allow “Mean Girl” behaviour to unfold in a class environment. The harder it gets to identify the core issue at hand and sort it out efficiently.
If you see something – say something!
By this we don’t mean you should act on impulse.
No good ever comes from an overly emotional and unprocessed confrontation. Take your time, and make sure you teach your child some safe and intervention strategies to use when they are faced with a bully.
Stop yourself from making judgements in the beginning
This ties in with the importance of keeping calm. You need to find a way to handle the situation with your child in a way that you can agree on.
So, refraining from making judgements, in the beginning, helps you keep a clear mind until it’s time to discuss everything.
Help your child develop effective coping skills
Peer isolation and bullying can lead to poor self-esteem, anxiety, depression and loneliness. These are all issues that need to be managed through effective coping skills, above and beyond the bullying itself.
Some great ways to work on your self-esteem, confidence and wellbeing include:
- Finding recreational activities that your child enjoys, and
- Ensuring they have someone they trust to talk to.
In our free bully awareness course, we have some great activities and ideas that you can try right away. Click here to enrol now!
In confrontation, support your argument with data
When it comes to confronting the school, the trickiest part is proving your story because of how subtle social bullying is.
If there’s no evidence, it’s much harder for things to escalate. So any evidence you can collect – you should!
The more you have to back your argument up, the better the chances are that the school will take action.
Don’t forget these three things in this process
Solving this issue isn’t a quick and easy process. At points where you feel like giving up, remember that:
- Your child isn’t going to get over this immediately. It takes a lot of work.
- The bullying probably won’t be solved overnight. It takes time.
- You’re going to need to work together with your child on this. It takes patience.
Remember that if your child is being bullied, there is a reason for it. And if there is a reason for the issue, it means it can be resolved.
And your combined perseverance will pay off if you are consistent and dedicated to resolving the issue.
Our goal is to help make this process be as smooth as possible for you. So, feel free to reach out to us if you need any extra guidance or advice and we will do what we can to assist.