By Becki Cohn-Vargas, Not In Our School Director

This blog was originally featured on Who’s That Lady Entertainment.


Relational BullyingIn seventh grade, I admit, I was not always the nicest person. One day, two of my friends and I went up to Louise H.’s house. We were giggling as we rang the bell. We had it all planned. When she answered the door, we were going to run. We just did it to be mean, for no other purpose. She came out and we took off. As we sprinted down the street laughing, I did not think twice about how Louise must have felt.

Then in eighth grade, the tables turned. I was in the locker room after gym class. Donna J. sprayed deodorant right in my face and told me nobody liked me because I stunk. I was devastated.

Many understand there are consequences for bullying—when someone gets hit, the perpetrator must make amends. Unlike a single, heated event, however, bullying involves repeated actions that hurt another person either verbally, physically, or through the written word, including online. But there are often no real consequences for another kind of bullying—a kind that is intentionally focused on excluding an individual from a group by bombarding him or her with rumors, gossip, or just plain group snubbing or direct insult. Often this behavior is stereotypical of teenage girls, but it can happen to anyone of any age. This type of treatment is known as relational bullying.

Relational bullying is usually done with a particular goal in mind. “If I pick on this person, I can raise my own status.” And who gets excluded? It is often a person with less social status because he or she is different from the rest in some way.

But it can also involve the opposite motivation. Often out of jealousy, those who are viewed as very pretty or smart get treated poorly with the intention of bringing them down in spirit or status to make them feel less threatening.

There is yet another motivation for relational bullying—by ostracizing a member of one’s own social group, it allows the person to feel he or she can climb up the social ladder by supplanting the other person’s status with one’s own.

Erica Harrold, Miss America 2003 shared her story of being bullied.

“When I was in the ninth grade, I was the victim of pervasive and severe racial and sexual harassment,” Harrold said. “It started out simply with name calling and teasing and taunting. Another thing the students would do is play this game called ‘The Un-cool Game.’ I would be sitting in class, and the students would sit there with clipboards and pieces of paper on the clipboards. For the entire class period they would watch and monitor everything I would do. And they would write it down. Then at the end of the class period they would actually be given the opportunity to read aloud to the rest of the students the list of all of the ‘un-cool’ things I had done. It was a degrading experience, to say the least. It started in ninth grade, and it was very difficult because many of the students who were involved used to be my friends during the eighth grade. So it was disconcerting to come back to school in ninth grade and to have the whole dynamic changed.”


The damage from relational bullying goes deep. Often, out of shame, a youth does not tell anyone it is happening. A girl might think she is the only one being ostracized and not want to admit how bad she feels. Also, many adults and school personnel might just say to “chin up” or let it “roll off your back like a duck.” Yet the impact of being rejected or excluded can last a lifetime.

Even for an adult at work, the same might be true. Believe me, I have even heard about it from college professors and teachers. Shame causes the person to isolate him or herself.


If it happens to you:

Don’t isolate! Find a trusted ally to share your feelings. It could be a peer, a family member, or a professional at school, church, or in the community. An ally is someone who will be there for you. We say trusted because you need to confide in the person, and you do not want any rumors to be spread.

Share your feelings, write about what happened, and even get counseling. If you are starting to feel depressed, know that you are not alone.

Once you have support, you might want to stand up to those who are mistreating you. Or, you might want to seek a whole new group of friends and or hobbies. Out of a bad situation, you might find a whole new and exciting path, like being in a school play, taking up a new sport, or doing community service to help others.

Whatever you do, be yourself: you do not need to change because of others.

If it happens to a friend or acquaintance:

The best thing to do is to speak up in the moment. “Hey, that’s not cool,” may be enough to get someone to stop. There are other ways to intervene that can also be effective. Find a private moment to approach the person causing the trouble and tell him or her to stop and explain why. Alert the adults, authorities, or someone who can step in to address the situation. And finally, you can reach out to the target of the relational bullying. A few kind and genuine words can make a lot of difference to lessen the impact.

Remember, anyone who excludes, teases, or harasses others could do the same to you.

If you want to stop it before it starts:

Creating a kind and accepting climate is the best way to stop mean actions from happening. Create a set of norms of how we treat each other—norms that include kindness, compassion, working collaboratively, and being allies for one another. Also, recognize that celebrating diversity and learning about each other’s backgrounds will help build trust and empathy and bridge the many differences.

Some create “Kindness Councils” or community campaigns and pledges to stop bullying, teasing, and all forms of intolerance.

Relational bullying has been around since the cave days, but so has kindness and the golden rule. Yet, while we still have a ways to go to create a society with less discrimination and bigotry, and more kindness, and acceptance, we are moving ahead. Know that in the end, happy people are those who are true to themselves, kind to others, and optimistic about the future.

Dr. Becki Cohn-Vargas is director of Not In Our School and coauthor of Identity Safe Classrooms: Places to Belong and Learn


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