“You can’t play with us!”: Handling Relational Aggression in the Playroom
The Playtime Project aims to provide children with a safe play experience, where they can leave some of their stress behind and just have fun. This goal can be undermined when the children are mean to each other, which is why we are careful to intervene when children hit each other or call each other names. However, there are other kinds of hurtful behavior that can be just as damaging to the kids.
When children exclude their peers from playing with them or try to control their behavior (e.g., “You can’t sit with us unless you . . . “), it can be tempting to dismiss this as normal developmental behavior. However, this is actually a form of bullying called Relational Aggression, and if it occurs in the playroom, it needs to be addressed.
While often thought to occur more frequently with girls, relational aggression is actually seen almost as frequently in boys. It is most common in children in middle childhood (around 8 years old) through adolescence, so there is a high likelihood you will see this type of behavior in most of our sites. Unsurprisingly, victims of relational aggression tend to develop low self-esteem and depression. But perpetrators of relational aggression are also at risk – many aggressors have traumatic pasts and engage in bullying to feel better about themselves. If their behavior is not addressed, they may continue to engage in negative social interactions throughout their lives.
So, what should you do when you see relational aggression at Playtime? Follow these steps:
1) Intervene immediately: Approach all the children involved and separate them so you can talk to each of them alone. Seek the help of other volunteers or your site leaders if you need it.
2) Get the facts: Speak to each child involved individually to get their perspective on what happened. Do not place blame on any of the participants – not even the child you perceive to be the perpetrator.
3) Support the victim: Listen to the child and show them you want to help. Ask them what the need from you. Help them understand that they did not do anything wrong, and role-play some strategies with them about what to do if the bullying happens again. Do NOT tell them to ignore the bullying. Ignoring bullying does not stop it – they need your help.Talk about friendship and help them understand how to choose good, caring friends. Let them know that you take this seriously, and that they should come to you or another volunteer if they continued to be bullied.
4) Support the perpetrator: Remember, children who act as aggressors in the playroom are usually victims in other areas of their life, so be understanding of them and listen to their perspective. Make sure they know what the problematic behavior is and calmly tell them that bullying is not tolerated at Playtime. Model respectful behavior while talking to them. Help the perpetrator think about why they bullied someone else. Allow the child to turn the aggressive behavior into helpful leaderships skills: have them teach other children why relational bullying is not okay, or ask them to make an anti-bullying poster for the playroom. Explain to the child that you may need to discuss their behavior with a parent or guardian, but avoid telling them they need to leave Playtime since a loss of privileges tends not to reduce bullying behavior.
5) Follow up: Addressing the incident may not mean the situation is resolved. Continue to monitor for relational aggression so the kids will know that we do not tolerate bullying of any form at Playtime.
Taking relational aggression as seriously as we take physical aggression will help us ensure that our playrooms are a safe and happy space for our kids!