Ask the Expert: Silent Bullying

An inside look of relational aggression

By Melissa Snider

As families prepare for the back-to-school season, one stressor affects almost half the students in grades 4 through 12: bullying. Whether it’s physical, verbal, or social, any type of bullying can have lasting, damaging effects on victims.

But what if the wrongdoing isn’t that apparent?

And what if repeated anti-social behaviors fly under the radar?

These questions come up when unveiling the idea of relational aggression. According to The Washington Post article “Mean boys are a thing, too. Here’s how to help your son manage toxic relationships” (November 8, 2018), this type of mistreatment “is a nonphysical, covert form of bullying used to damage the reputation of another child or harm and manipulate that child’s relationships with others. It includes a pattern of behavior (not just a single incident) and a power imbalance between the perpetrator and the victim.”

Educating ourselves on behavior that can go unnoticed by adults (whether our child is the victim or the offender) is the antidote. So start this school year informed and empowered to be a positive force in your child’s development.

Identifying Social Bullying

In general, “bullying is repeated intentional harm,” according to child and family therapist, licensed social worker, and Teton Behavior Therapy owner Jennifer Bradoff. “Bullying is not about a kid being mean, aggressive, or using poor social skills only one time.” Bullying also includes a power imbalance based on factors such as intellect, popularity, social class, or appearance. The classic image of a physically aggressive bully who shoves kids into lockers is misleading, as physical bullying is less common than social bullying.

“Relational aggression [i.e., social bullying] involves a subtler kind of hostility … with the intention to create an uncomfortable emotion such as fear or embarrassment,” says C-Bar-V Ranch school psychologist Laura Perez, who notices this type of behavior most commonly among girls. She explains that social bullying includes efforts to “control and manipulate” others by starting rumors, ostracizing, sharing someone’s personal information, or making cruel comments. The “ringleader” can also use tactics such as social exclusion, sarcasm, and manipulation to hurt the feelings of another. “The victim wants to be their friend—they know that—and they’re intentionally using it to hurt the person,” Perez says. “But the whole point is to be covert.”

According to, most reported bullying occurs at school. Yet, Perez says, schools prioritize physical safety and may not get involved in rapidly shifting alliances between students. When it comes to social manipulation, Perez says, it’s a little harder to prove intention, especially when the student in question tends to be charming and well-behaved in front of adults.

Bradoff—who formerly worked as a K-through-12 social worker in Jackson’s Teton County School District No. 1—says upper-grade students with less supervision and greater independence have more opportunity to carry out relational aggression. “Kids who are less likely to report [the behavior] or stand up for themselves are typically targeted,” she says. The impact can be severe, leading to depression, loss of confidence and self-worth, and even thoughts of suicide.

Ringleaders and Bystanders

The dynamics of bullying are complex, and the roles of victim and aggressor aren’t always clear cut. In addition to the lead aggressor (or ringleader), Perez explains, there can be several others who passively participate out of their own fear of being rejected. These bystanders also may actively ridicule, spread rumors, or triangulate against a targeted member of their group.

According to, relational aggression’s commonality in girls stems from the fact that on average girls advance more readily in the social environment. And while this type of “mean girl” behavior is more apparent in older children like tweens and teens, the mannerisms can start to develop as early as age three. Perez also explains that girls bully much differently than boys. While boys tend to be more physical, girls try to control situations on the emotional level.

Laura Santomauro, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and owner of Jackson Hole Family Solutions, believes ringleaders may have unmet emotional needs. “What I hear from kids is that [they’re looking for] a sense of value or a sense of belonging,” she says. Motivations can include gaining social capital or seeking power and control. Or a child may be processing their own pain by inflicting it on others.

Bystanders, on the other hand, learn about this type of bullying by watching the ringleaders. Then they have a few choices to make. 1. They can do nothing. 2. They can join in. 3. They can stand up for the victim. Those who do nothing often feel guilt down the road. Those who join in are at risk for becoming ringleaders themselves, as the behavior seems to them like an acceptable way to get what they want. Educators use anti-bullying curricula as a way to empower kids to recognize mistreatment and to self-police social situations in a safe manner.

Parents should “lead with curiosity” when addressing social bullying, says Santomauro. She cautions against labeling a kid “bully,” which risks reinforcing the child’s negative self-perception. “It’s not about placing blame and finding fault. It’s about creating new, open, vulnerable dialogues within a family system that encourage us to have stronger bonds and not reach for behaviors that are hurtful to ourselves and others.”

Bradoff explains that when you have a victim and a bully, often times both are the victim. So parents dealing with a child who bullies should reflect before reacting. Perez advises parents to avoid the urge to punish or exert control and instead express sympathy to break down the wall children put up to protect themselves from whatever it is that’s hurting them.

Warning Signs and Problem-Solving

It can be easy to pass off troubling tween or teen behavior as “moodiness,” but parents should be alert for changes in temperament. If your child becomes withdrawn or increasingly irritable, loses interest in activities they love, or changes their sleep or eating patterns, check in. Dig deeper around the excuses to avoid school or to ride the bus. Santomauro recommends listening closely and helping kids verbalize their emotions.

Teenagers may be especially reluctant to get adults involved in their social challenges, so parents should “weigh the risks of involving themselves,” says Bradoff. But both Bradoff and Santomauro draw a definite line on aggressive behavior. If your child feels emotionally or physically unsafe, it’s time to intervene. When adults do take action, the process should be centered around partnership and problem solving.

Bradoff also encourages a “collaborative spirit” or the idea that you want to help your child while also solving the greater problem. She says it’s important to be open to the idea that your child may have a role—intentional or unintentional; ringleader, victim, or bystander—and that parents should not micromanage the outcome. That said, she encourages parents to advocate for their child if they don’t see noticeable improvement.

Preventative Actions

While there’s no such thing as making kids “bully-proof,” a few family-based strategies support students outside of home.

First, tune in. Bradoff recommends creating space and time away from devices to connect with children. Families can use car rides or bath time to ask what games their kids played at recess or to discuss the “roses and thorns” (highs and lows) from their day. She advises parents of teens to avoid offering solutions or judgment when their kids open up, but instead to listen and empathize.

Next, parents can teach children to tap into assertive language. Give kids the opportunity to socialize, and resist the urge to rescue them from a conflict. Teach them to either leave the situation or speak up for themselves should they fall victim to verbal abuse. Bradoff says parents should “give children language that’s clear, direct, and lets the other person know the consequence” to help them resolve the situation.

Both therapists caution that students who are being physically or emotionally harmed should not be expected to solve it on their own. “We can only have a kid laugh it off or turn the other cheek for so long,” says Bradoff, who teaches kids to persist when seeking help.

Finally, set an example of kindness. “We have to look at the culture of our classrooms, of our school, and of our homes and community,” says Bradoff. Practicing inclusivity and having honest conversations with children about race, gender, and social status provide a foundation for kids to thrive. Listening to and loving our kids at home and in our community can cultivate connection and cut down on aggression.