How to Recognize Relational Aggression

Reviewed by Lauren Guilbeault

Published 06/27/2022

Have you ever been bullied, belittled, gossiped about, or ignored by friends? Have you ever done these things to others? Or have you witnessed these behaviors? If so, you've had experience with relational aggression. Unlike physical attacks, relational aggression can seem sneaky and subtle. Yet, even covert aggression can have devastating consequences for everyone involved. Recognizing relational aggression in your children, yourself, and others are the first step to overcoming it.

What Is Relational Aggression?

You may have already guessed that relational aggression has something to do with both relationships and aggression. While that's true, it isn't a complete definition. Relational aggression is a unique type of attack that happens in a specific kind of relationship.

The APA Dictionary defines relational aggression as "behavior that manipulates or damages relationships between individuals or groups, such as bullying, gossiping, and humiliation."

In 1996, a researcher named NR Crick defined relational aggression as "intentionally damaging someone's social relationships through the use of social exclusion and manipulation.

When it comes to relational aggression psychology, the definition has been clearly established. It is not the type of aggression that causes physical harm. Instead, it's aggression that covertly damages the victim's social relationships with their peers.

Types Of Aggression

Psychologists have identified many different types of aggression. But you may be wondering, which type of aggression is most similar to relational aggression? Here is an overview of some types of aggression and how they're related to relational aggression.

Some psychologists separate aggression into three types: reactive-expressive, reactive-inexpressive, and proactive-relational. Reactive-expressive is engaging in open aggression due to anger about some perceived slight, offense, or attack. Reactive-inexpressive aggression refers to covert hostility.

Relational aggression is sometimes covert in that the aggressor may hide the fact that they're trying to cause the victim damage. But relational aggression can also be direct and obvious at times. These two types of attacks are called covert and direct aggression.

Another distinction that psychologists make is about why the aggressor chooses to engage in these harmful behaviors. The two types of relational aggression in this sense are reactive and proactive aggression.

If you have reactive relational aggression, you hurt someone intentionally because you're angry, hostile to them, or feel they're threatening you in some way. For instance, if a child tells their teacher that you are disrupting the class, you might react with anger and begin bullying them.

On the other hand, proactive relational aggression refers to aggression designed to serve some other purpose. For example, you might start a rumor about a coworker because you want to keep them from getting the promotion you want.

Childhood Relational Aggression

Children often engage in relational aggression and reactive aggression. Early adolescence is often the age at which children lash out in anger with bullying and other manipulation types. However, relational aggression can start in early childhood. Some studies have explored relational aggression in children as young as three years old to identify signs of aggression during psychological and social development.

Signs Of Relational Aggression

The signs of relational aggression show up differently for the aggressor and the victim. The child who is being aggressive might have trouble sleeping at night, obsess about their popularity, have behavioral problems at school, or display mean-spirited behavior at home. Many people who were once the victim later become bullies themselves.

For the person on the receiving end of relational aggression, some of the signs include:

  • Skipping school
  • Headaches or stomach aches
  • Low academic performance
  • Eating disorders
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Avoiding social situations
  • Low self-esteem
  • Suicidal thoughts or self-harm
  • Substance abuse

Examples Of Relational Aggression

Still not sure what is meant by relational aggression? Perhaps a few examples of this problem will help.

  • Joking about a peer's appearance
  • Using sarcasm to put someone down
  • Spreading rumors online
  • Using gossip as a tool to damage someone's reputation
  • Convincing other children to join them in revenge against one person
  • Making up stories about another child's habits, family, or circumstances
  • Joking with friends about hurting another child
  • Telling someone that they can't be a member of their club if they talk to the victim
  • Leaving one person out when having a party
  • Pretending to be empathetic to find out secrets to tell others
  • Ignoring someone when they try to interact in the group
  • Teasing someone relentlessly
  • Using physical gestures like eye-rolling to signal disapproval of someone
  • Coming between two people who want to be friends

Are You Experiencing Relational Aggression?

Because relational aggression can be so subtle and hidden, many people don't recognize when they or their child is being aggressive or a victim of relational aggression. Another reason is that when someone has used this type of attack against you, it can lower your self-esteem and bring up self-doubt.

Often, the best thing to do is to talk to a therapist about it. While relational aggression is not a clinical diagnosis, it is something a counselor can help you deal with and overcome. Another thing to remember is that relational aggression can be a problem for both children and adults. So, whether you're concerned about your child or yourself, it makes sense to get help. You can start by taking an online aggression quiz for a quick assessment.

What Causes Relational Aggression?

Relational aggression can be a significant problem for both the aggressor and the victim. So, why do people engage in it in the first place? Here are several reasons someone might do it:

  • They're bored
  • They think it's fun or exciting
  • They feel peer pressure to join in it
  • They're covering up their own low self-esteem
  • To get rid of competition
  • Because their parents or other role models do it

What You Can Do About Relational Aggression

No matter what side of the equation you fall on, there are ways to deal with it when it happens to you or your child. Here's how you can stop the pain and disruption of relational aggression.

Manage Your Emotions

Managing your emotions is critical, whether you're being aggressive or suffering due to someone else's aggression. If you realize you're the one hurting others, you need to deal with the anger, hostility or fear that's driving you to hurt others. Then, by learning more positive ways to respond to those feelings, you can avoid reactive aggression.

It's critical for those who suffer from others' relational aggression to manage the emotions that come up due to being victimized. Expressive therapies, like art therapy, dance therapy, or music therapy, offer positive ways to express the anger, sadness, or hopelessness that come from being hurt in these ways. You can also benefit from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which teaches you to question and change negative thoughts you pick up from the aggressors.

Develop Empathy

If you're aggressive with others, it may be that you don't feel any empathy for them. You don't recognize that they have emotional needs and challenges. Or, you don't realize what intense pain you're causing them.

Even if you're the one suffering because of someone else's aggression, you may benefit from empathizing with them to some degree. While it's important not to downplay your own emotions, there is one specific way empathy can help you. That is, if you recognize that their behavior may be coming from their own pain, you may be less likely to think it's because of who you are or what you say or do.

So, how can you increase your empathy? Here are a few suggestions you can work on with a therapist or on your own:

  • Identify and correct your biases.
  • Learn to recognize the emotions of others.
  • Practice active listening.
  • Focus more on asking questions and less on your own opinions.
  • Practice mindfulness and stay grounded in the present moment.
  • Learn to value differences and diversity.
  • Read fiction to explore the inner thoughts of characters who are different from you.

Choose Assertiveness

When you interact with others, you might be aggressive, passive-aggressive, passive, or assertive. When you engage in relational aggression, you're either being aggressive or passive-aggressive. Often, as the victim, you respond passively or fight back aggressively. But choosing assertiveness usually puts an end to the aggressive behavior, or at least diminishes its effect.

So, what is assertiveness? It's standing up for yourself without trying to hurt someone else. You firmly and clearly let the other person know that you will not accept their aggression. You show them that you value yourself for who you are. Instead of telling yourself that they hurt you because you aren't good enough, you recognize that your needs are as important as theirs.


Relational aggression isn't always easy to recognize. If you think you or your child might be experiencing it, take some time to check through the list of signs and consider the examples listed above. Then, if you identify any aggression in your social relationships, make a plan to deal with it. Whether you take positive steps on your own or work with a counselor, your life or your child's life will be easier and happier once you overcome relational aggression.