During the preschool years, when relational aggression first appears, adults are naturally more attuned to physical bullying. And rightfully so: the wounds from hitting and kicking at that age may be more serious than those from exclusion and gossiping. But the seeds of the destructive behavior are planted early. Consider this scenario between three 6-year-old girls:
Maya sits quietly at the classroom arts table. Next to her, Chantal and Zoe draw with colored pencils. "I'm drawing a whole field of flowers in front of my house," says Chantal.
"I'm wearing a fancy pink dress in this picture, Chantal, 'cause I'm going to your birthday party," says Zoe. She turns to Maya. "You can come to Chantal's party, too ... if you follow the rules."
Maya nods, and looks down at her empty paper. After a pause, she looks up at her best friend and says, "Zoe, I really do have to go to the bathroom! Please?"
Zoe shakes her head. "It's time to draw. You can't go while we're drawing. Those are just my rules. You have to follow them if you're our friend. Right, Chantal?"
The girls' teacher walks over. She sees Maya's blank paper. "Maya? What are you doing? If you don't start your work I'm going to have to put your name on the board."
What's going on? Zoe has made Maya the victim of her covert bullying, and compromised Maya's ability to take care of herself. In addition, Maya is unable to focus on her work.
Unfortunately, an easygoing child such as Maya will likely continue to be bullied during adolescence. Research shows that the victim role becomes stabilized by the time a child is 5. Girls who use relational aggression as effectively as Zoe may continue their behavior as well because they have developed habits of friendship, interaction, and fighting that are hard to break.