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Understanding children’s relational aggression (a form of aggression characterized by actual or threatened damage to relationships)

May 24, 2013

In a study designed to “explor[e] developmental differences in children’s beliefs about relational aggression and by examining the influence of peer-group-level normative beliefs in the prediction of relational aggression,” (p.826) Nicole E. Werner and Laura G. Hill have the following to say (my notes jump around a bit, because I had to suss out some of the jargon):

(Having defined “relational aggression [as] a form of aggression characterized by actual or threatened damage to relationships (e.g., Crick & Grotpeter, 1995)” (p.826)), Werner and Hill write: “Crick and colleagues (Crick, 1995; Crick, Grotpeter, & Bigbee, 2002) found that children who use relational aggression at high levels attribute hostile intent to peers in ambiguous relational conflicts (i.e., involving threats to their acceptance by friends or the peer group) whereas physically aggressive children’s hostile attribution biases are limited to instrumental provocation situations. Although promising, Crick and colleagues’ findings have not been replicated (cf. Crain et al., 2005; Nelson, Mitchell, & Yang, 2008).” (p.826)

A growing body of literature points to the significant role that peer relationships play for relational aggression during childhood and adolescence. Several studies have found that close friends tend to resemble each other in levels of relational aggression (Duffy & Nesdale, 2008; Ellis & Zarbatany, 2007; Werner & Crick, 2004), and having relationally aggressive friends predicts increases in children’s relational aggression over time (Werner & Crick, 2004). Socialization processes at the dyadic and larger peer group level might explain these findings. Werner and Crick (2004) hypothesized that relational aggression is selectively reinforced within the close friendships of children who exhibit relationally aggressive behaviors through a process similar to deviancy training that characterizes the friendships of antisocial males (Dishion, Patterson, & Griesler, 1994). Consistent with this notion, Cillessen and Mayeux (2004) interpreted findings of strong associations between relational aggression and perceived popularity as indicating that relational aggression is increasingly reinforced in the peer group with age, via the benefits incurred from high status.
The previously described findings raise the possibility that peer group norms, such as the level of acceptance of aggression, may play an important role in the development and maintenance of relationally aggressive behaviors. The literature on bullying has long recognized the impact of group processes, although operational definitions of group norms have varied widely across studies. Salmivalli and Voeten (2004) measured students’ expectations of the social consequences of bullying in their classroom and found that group norms explained classroom variance in bullying behavior above and beyond individuals’ beliefs about the appropriateness of bullying.” (p.827)

“In this study, we hypothesized that both individual beliefs about the acceptability of relational aggression, and those of the larger peer group (i.e., the classroom), influence students’ engagement in relationally aggressive behavior.” (p.827)

Research “findings support the hypothesis that normative (i.e., frequent) behavior in the peer group influences individual children’s behavior via modeling or peer socialization processes (Bandura, 1986). The current investigation was designed to increase our understanding of SIP  [i.e., social information processing (SIP) model] factors in relational aggression by exploring the independent and interactive effects of individual- and classroom level normative beliefs for children’s relationally aggressive behaviors.” (p.828)

“One component of the SIP model [i.e., social information processing (SIP) model] that has received increasing attention is the ‘‘database.’’ SIP theory posits that knowledge structures function as a cross-situational, distal storehouse of information that controls children’s behavior by imposing limits on the processing of specific information in the social environment (i.e., online processing). Huesmann (1988) and Crick and Dodge (1994) argued that children’s memories of past experiences are stored in long-term memory and, over time, integrated into generalized knowledge structures such as scripts, schemas, or working models (Dodge, 1993). Knowledge structures simplify the task of processing cues in the immediate social environment, resulting in more efficient, but not necessarily more accurate or adaptive, processing.
One line of work on latent knowledge structures has explored children’s generalized beliefs about the legitimacy or normative nature of aggression. Converging evidence suggests that children who view aggression as an acceptable response are more likely to engage in aggressive behavior concurrently and in the future (Henry et al., 2000; Huesmann & Guerra, 1997). Several studies have explored children’s normative beliefs about relational aggression. Musher-Eizenman et al. (2004) surveyed 778 children in Grades 4–6 and found that those children who were more approving of indirect aggression (a construct similar to relational aggression) reported higher levels of indirect aggression. Similar findings were reported by Werner and Nixon (2005) in a study of sixth through eighth graders, and by Bailey and Ostrov (2008) in a study of college students. Only one study has examined children’s normative beliefs and relational aggression using an independent informant of aggression. Murray-Close, Crick, and Galotti (2006) found that fourth and fifth graders’ judgments of the appropriateness of relational aggression were marginally associated with peer reports of relational aggression.
In sum, prior research has yielded some evidence to support the application of the SIP model to children’s relational aggression. However, the failure to replicate some findings has led some researchers to call into question the utility of the SIP model for understanding relational aggression (Crain et al., 2005; Nelson et al., 2008).” (pp.826-827)

Note: The authors warn that “Given the lack of previous work on the development of normative beliefs about relational aggression, our predictions should be considered exploratory.” (p.828)

“The results of this study provide important information about children’s normative beliefs about relational aggression and the significance of these beliefs at the peer group level for the development of relational aggression during middle childhood and early adolescence.
Using a conservative analytic approach, we found that students who reported greater approval of relational aggression were more relationally aggressive 1 year later….” (p.832)

Werner and Hill state that their “results provide support for the SIP framework whereby normative beliefs operate as a script or schema that increases the efficiency with which the child processes social information in the immediate environment. For example, scripts should increase the likelihood that the child will encode threatening cues in peer conflict situations (e.g., a peer is standing too close to my romantic partner), make maladaptive attributions about [-p.833] others’ intentions (e.g., a peer is threatening my social status), access aggressive responses from memory, and enact those responses.” (p.833)

“The most compelling results of the current study, however, focus on the role of the peer group for the development of relational aggression. Using a contextual analytic approach, we found that when support for relational aggression in the classroom was high, students in those classrooms were more relationally aggressive the following year compared to students in peer groups less supportive of relational aggression.” (p.833) “One explanation for the significance of peergroup-level norms for individuals’ aggressive trajectories in this study might lie in the link between relational aggression and peer status. In early adolescence, relationally aggressive youths are perceived by their peers as ‘‘popular’’ (Rose, Swenson, & Waller, 2004), an association that strengthens across the adolescent period (Cillessen & Mayeux, 2004). We expect that perceptions of popularity are interconnected with students’ approval of the behavior exhibited by popular youth, and these linkages are likely bidirectional in nature. Observations that youth who use relational aggression confer privileged status in the peer group might contribute to more positive evaluations of the behaviors exhibited by those youth, a hypothesis that is supported by our finding that early adolescence was marked by a significant increase in approval of relational aggression and higher levels of relational aggression. At the same time, as relationally aggressive behaviors come to be viewed more positively by adolescents, perceptions of youth who engage in these behaviors should improve. Regardless of the direction of effects, the benefits of high social status incurred by youth who use relational aggression are likely to act as reinforcement of relational aggression, thus explaining the impact of group norms on individual behavior.
Another explanation for the significance of peer group normative beliefs relates to deviancy training and peer contagion. Dishion and colleges have convincingly shown that aggregating high-risk peers increases the risk for escalation of deviant behavior.” (p.833)

Werner and Hill also found that “gender was unrelated to relational aggression. These findings are consistent with the growing literature showing that gender differences in relational aggression are generally small.” (p.833) They also write that “the developmental and grade-related effects found in this study point to the need to consider how the middle school context contributes to students’ beliefs about relational aggression. As noted by other researchers, middle schools are typically characterized by a larger student body, shifting peer groups, more impersonal teacher–student relationships, and less adult monitoring (e.g., Eccles et al., 1993). These contextual factors might contribute to increases in relational aggression directly, by reducing adult sanctions against the behavior. Indirect influences, however, are also possible. The majority of school-based bullying prevention efforts emphasize overt forms of aggression. Under these circumstances, students are likely to observe that adults pay little attention to relationally aggressive behavior (relative to overt aggression) and internalize these reactions as supportive of relational aggression. These processes might explain, in part, the increases in acceptability of relational aggression and growth in relational aggression among older students in this study.” (p.834)

The fact that children as young as preschool believe that relational aggression is more acceptable than overt aggression (Goldstein, Tisak, & Boxer, 2002) points to the potential importance of targeting normative beliefs about relational aggression early in development.” (p.834)

Ref: Nicole E. Werner and Laura G. Hill (2010) Individual and Peer Group Normative Beliefs About Relational Aggression. Child Development, May/June, Volume 81, Number 3, Pages 826–836

Abstract: “Studies show that children who use relational aggression process social information in unique ways; however, findings have been inconsistent and limited by methodological weaknesses. This short-term longitudinal study examined developmental changes in 245 (49% female; ages 8–13) 3rd through 8th graders’ normative beliefs about relational aggression and tested the hypothesis that individual and classroom-level norms predict relational aggression 1 year later. Results showed that the transition to middle school was marked by increased approval of relational aggression, and individual norms predicted future relational aggression. Importantly, a contextual model showed that students in peer groups highly supportive of relational aggression became increasingly aggressive. Findings extend social information processing theories of relational aggression to focus on the role of peer group cognitions.”

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