Only hours after appearing on NBC's Today Show last May to talk about a newly researched form of bullying, Craig Hart received a phone call from one of the Church's mission presidents. The mission president had questions about the program, which featured "relational aggression" — a type of bullying in which others are harmed through purposeful manipulation and damage to relationships.
He asked Brother Hart, a BYU professor of Marriage, Family and Human Development, how to find someone to talk to his missionaries about using social and psychological manipulation to maintain dominance via exclusionary or demeaning behaviors. Unfortunately, the mission president confided, he saw the behavior reflected regularly within companionships of some of his missionaries.
In recent years, physical bullying has been a topic of concern in school yards across the United States and Europe. Numerous national media reports have highlighted the problem, capturing graphic images of children on playgrounds hitting or kicking other children. As awareness has grown, school administrators began working to prevent bullying; some schools have children sign contracts to say they won't participate in the practice and will report others who do so.
BYU Marriage, Family and Human Development professors David Nelson and Clyde Robinson, along with Brother Hart, took their research a step further, studying not just physical bullying, but also relational bullying/aggression in Australia, China, Japan, Russia and the United States.
The latter form, research indicates, is most prominent in girls and can even be used by children as young as 3 or 4 years of age. These children control and attempt to hurt others in more subtle ways: not allowing a specific child to play with the group or demanding other children not play with a specific child, for example. The children may also threaten to not play with a child unless certain needs/demands are met or refuse to listen to someone they are mad at. "Queen Bees" — as these dominate girls have been dubbed by the national media — are also good at spreading gossip and hurtful rumors.
Although there are no specific studies on relational aggression and Church members, the BYU researchers say common sense and experience — as well as the experiences of the mission president and others — tell them relational aggression occurs not just on school yards, but also in Church settings.
The first thing Church members can do is "acknowledge that relational aggression happens and that it is mean," said Brother Robinson. "It offends youth. It tears youth away."
In Church settings, teens — mainly girls — might ignore or tease another teen or spread rumors about one another. And, most often, it occurs "out of earshot and out of eyesight" of adults.
The problem, Brother Hart explained, is simple: being excluded makes most people want to be included even more.
"Girls are so sensitive to other people's feelings," he said. "That is a great strength, but it is also their greatest vulnerability."
Research indicates that children who are bullied — either physically or relationally — might have higher levels of depression, anxiety and loneliness. They are more likely to have school adjustment problems. Girls, said Brother Nelson, might have an increased chance of developing an eating disorder, especially if teasing or bullying is targeted at their weight.
In a Church setting, the damage can also be spiritual because people relate their feelings at Church and at Church-sponsored activities to their testimony of Jesus Christ, Brother Hart said. A bad experience at Church, added Brother Robinson, can influence a person's spiritual progression.
Research shows the same outcomes apply to adults when they feel isolated or excluded, added Brother Hart.
"We need to be more Christian. We need to be inclusive," he emphasized. One person who has a bad experience at Church is one too many, he said.
Brother Nelson, Brother Hart and Brother Robinson received international attention this year for their recent study on relational aggression, which was reported in the journal Early Education and Development and was the first study to examine the link between relational aggression and peer social status in young children in U.S. preschools.
Study participants (more than 300 children, mainly from LDS homes) selected from a picture board three children in their class with whom they liked to play and three with whom they did not like to play. The children were also asked in individual interviews to identify the peers in their class who exhibited certain sociable behaviors, physically aggressive behaviors, and relationally aggressive behaviors.
They found preschool girls tend to exhibit behavior consistent with that of "Queen Bees" in adolescence. In particular, they identified controversial children — those who received a substantial number of both "like" and "dislike" nominations from their peers. These are children with a strong social presence, the BYU researchers found. Furthermore, they are perceived by their peers as being more sociable, as well as more aggressive, than the average child. Thus, these children demonstrate an active mix of positive and negative behavior.
"The controversial child is socially savvy," said Brother Hart. "They are good resource controllers, socially skilled, popular, conscientious, and socially integrated, and yet are among the most aggressive, dominant and arrogant children in the peer group. It is this bi-strategic mix of positive and negative behavior that allows them to maintain their standing in the social hierarchy."
Because these children do exhibit social skills, many parents are not even aware of the negative aspects of their child's behavior, he added. Most parents of a relational aggressive child describe their child as "assertive and outgoing," said Brother Nelson. "They have no idea their child is a source of mental anguish for other kids."
"There has to be more awareness," said Brother Hart.
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