Applied Psychology OPUS

Mean Kids, Mean Moms?

by Kara Duca

         Increases in popular media depictions of adolescent “Mean Girls” in the last decade highlight the destructive and all too common pattern of relational aggression among young girls. Generally, relational aggression encompasses behaviors that attempt to harm others through the manipulation of relationships (Crick & Grotpeter, 1995). Behaviors associated with relational aggression include threats of social exclusion, actual social exclusion or ostracization, and spreading rumors or gossip within a peer group (Crick & Grotpeter, 1995; Young et al., 2006). In contrast to physical aggression, which is more overt, most relational aggression is concealed behind a façade of kindness and even friendship (Reed et al., 2008; Tackett et al., 2009). Research has shown relational aggression to relate to a host of detrimental outcomes for victims, including negative internalizing and externalizing symptoms, isolation, and peer rejection (e.g., Card, Stucky, Sawalani, & Little, 2008; Crick et al., 2001). This research underscores the idea that relational aggression can be just as serious and harmful as physical aggression, as it can negatively affect a child’s development in many ways. Because of the long-standing belief that parent-child interactions profoundly affect a child’s beliefs surrounding proper behavior, research suggests that parents should be vigilant in identifying and preventing signs of relational aggression in their children (Kawabata et al., 2011; Maccoby & Martin, 1983). Yet, what if some parenting behaviors unintentionally bring about the opposite result, and end up increasing relational aggression in children? In particular, research suggests that mothers' beliefs about the seriousness and harmfulness of relational aggression, their use of emotional discourse, and patterns of psychological control all contribute to relational aggression in children (Garner, Dunsmore, & Southam-Gerrow, 2008; McNamara, Selig, & Hawley, 2010; Werner, Senich, & Przepyszny, 2006).

        One particular way that mothers may influence children’s perception of relational aggression is through their diverse reactions to different types of aggressive behavior. In a study examining variations in mothers’ responses to children’s physical and relational aggression, Werner and her colleagues (2006) found a large discrepancy in beliefs concerning various types of aggression. Whereas only 1.3% of mothers said they would not intervene in the physical aggression conflicts, 13.5% of mothers claimed they would not intervene in their child’s relational aggression conflicts (Werner et al., 2006). Furthermore, when mothers were asked how they would react to various hypothetical situations that depicted their child engaging in either physical or relational aggression, mothers overwhelmingly reported that they would be less disturbed by instances of relational aggression (Werner et al., 2006). These results support prior evidence suggesting that adults view physical aggression as more serious and harmful than relational aggression (Colwell et al., 2002; Young, Boye, & Nelson, 2006). Although physical aggression is also worrisome, adults’ views on relational aggression could perpetuate a harmful and dangerous pattern of relationally aggressive behavior in a child.

        When mothers downplay the seriousness of relational aggression, their lack of interventions in child-peer conflicts may act as a mechanism through which mothers may unintentionally socialize relationally aggressive behavior in their children (Werner et al., 2006). In other words, seeing their mothers respond negatively to physical aggression but not relational aggression, young children adopt the belief that relational aggression is an acceptable alternative method of social manipulation. By placing their primary concern on addressing and minimizing children’s physical aggression, mothers minimize the harmfulness of relational aggression, providing a kind of negative reinforcement to their children to continue engaging in these behaviors. Though young children may not yet understand the concept of “social manipulation,” such reinforcement perpetuates the belief that relational aggression is an acceptable means for a child to get what he/she wants. Thus, the practice of discriminating between physical and relational aggression and placing more emphasis on minimizing the former is one means through which mothers may unintentionally socialize relationally aggressive behavior in their children.

        In addition to maternal beliefs about the need to respond to various forms of child aggression, specific mother-child communication patterns may be linked to the development of relationally aggressive behavior in children. In one study, mothers who frequently explained emotions during story-telling with their children were more likely to have children who engaged in prosocial behavior (Garner et al., 2008). Ironically, these emotional explanations (i.e., statements meant to identify the cause or effect of an emotion) were also positively correlated with children’s relational aggression. These results suggest a two-step process that leaves considerable room for outside factors and other components of the mother-child relationship to exert an effect. It seems that maternal explanations of the dynamics of emotion facilitate interpersonal sensitivity in the child; the ability to recognize various emotions, surmise their causes, and predict the consequences of different behaviors on emotions in storybook characters then transfers over to a child’s real-world contexts. Thus, during encounters with others, the child has the choice to use this newfound social knowledge either “to benefit and co-operate with others (prosocial behavior) or to acquire resources for themselves (relational aggression)” (Garner et al., 2008, p.269). However, there is a great need for further research into this relationship that controls for various demographic variables and child’s baseline emotional competence, as these variables have somewhat clouded the analysis of the interaction between maternal emotional discourse and child relational aggression. Though it seems apparent that mothers’ emotional explanations play a role in the socialization of children’s relational aggression, is not yet clear how the child decides whether to invest his/her emotional knowledge in prosocial or relationally aggressive behavior. This gap in the literature leaves ample room for further research into potential parental practices and styles that foster relational aggression in children.

        Along with maternal beliefs and communication patterns, mothers’ use of psychological control plays a multifaceted role in the likelihood that children will engage in relationally aggressive behavior (McNamara et al., 2010; Reed et al., 2008). Psychological control, a parenting style often studied in the context of relational aggression, includes devices such as guilt induction, conditional love, and repeated expression of disappointment with the child in order to manipulate the parent-child relationship and control the child’s behavior (Kawabata et al., 2011; Nelson & Crick, 2002). Parental psychological control, which is itself a kind of relational aggression, can hinder the development of a child’s psychological autonomy and social competence. Furthermore, this type of parenting can even affect the child’s own patterns of relational aggression (Kawabata et al., 2011; Nelson et al., 2006). For instance, research indicates that children whose mothers engaged in high levels of psychological control displayed significantly higher levels of relational aggression than children whose mothers ranked low in psychological control (McNamara et al., 2010). However, these differences leveled out when mothers displayed high amounts of autonomy support (i.e., encouraging independence and active problem-solving; McNamara et al., 2010). The fact that autonomy support can potentially mitigate the negative effects of maternal psychological control suggests that efforts to increase maternal autonomy support may be more beneficial than interventions to decrease psychological control (McNamara et al., 2010).

         Interestingly, no empirical study to date has shown maternal relational aggression to independently predict child relational aggression, though maternal psychological control provides a link between these two constructs (Reed et al., 2008). Mothers who engage in relational aggression in their own social relationships are more likely to use psychological control with their children, suggesting that mothers transfer emotionally manipulative behavioral patterns across contexts (Reed et al., 2008). Research has speculated that social reinforcement, in the form of increased social status or successful manipulation of others in order to achieve some desired result, leads adults to perceive relationally aggressive behavior as having an valid purpose, a speculation that is in line with Werner et al.’s (2006) research about the subtle reinforcement of relational aggression in children (Reed et al., 2008). Given that maternal psychological control correlates positively with child’s relational aggression, psychological control may act as an indirect connection between maternal relational aggression and child relational aggression. When children see their mothers receiving social benefits from behaving in relationally aggressive ways and do not encounter resistance or objection for engaging in these behaviors themselves, they begin to think that social manipulation is a valid and acceptable strategy for getting what they want. Furthermore, when parents passively reinforce such behavior, children cannot understand the harm that their actions inflict upon their victims.

        Relational aggression is a serious form of mental and emotional injury that is related to a plethora of negative internalizing and externalizing outcomes in victims (Young et al., 2006). Despite the fact that physical aggression has traditionally received more research attention, relational aggression can inflict just as much harm on its victims. Research suggests that mothers play an integral role in the development of children’s relationally aggressive behavior through minimizing the seriousness of such behavior in comparison to physical aggression, using psychological control while inhibiting autonomy development, and employing specific patterns of emotional discourse. Because maternal relationships are a rich source of socialization for young children, it is essential to gear them towards the production of beneficial, prosocial behavior rather than self-seeking, interpersonally damaging behavior. However, interventions to instill prosocial behaviors in children will only be beneficial when relational aggression and other forms of emotional abuse achieve parity with their physical counterparts in the minds of researchers and laypersons alike. It is only at this point that society may be able to realize that the experience of social exclusion, ostracization, and manipulation day in and day out can and will hurt a child just as much as a kick in the stomach.


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Author's Biography

Kara Duca is a junior in the Applied Psychology program. Her main research interests include the development of ethnic identity and self-esteem among urban adolescents, as well as the influence of acculturation-related stressors on mental health outcomes. Currently, Kara is an OPUS editor-intraining. After graduating, she plans to pursue a doctoral degree in counseling psychology.