"It hurts a lot"
That succinct response from a girl targeted by a social bullying campaign covers a broad range of psychological effects, including embarrassment, confusion, anger, worry, fear, humiliation, loneliness, self-consciousness, betrayal and sadness.
The victims of relational aggression respond to its impact in a number of negative ways, including depression, acting out, maladaptive eating patterns and even thoughts of suicide.
Because it leaves no physical wounds, relational aggression has only recently begun to be included in school bullying prevention programs. And, since it is usually difficult to document or prove, it is still far harder to control than physical bullying.
As a result, it is unlikely that an act of social aggression will be detected and stopped immediately, as might well be the case in a schoolyard scuffle. So how should a victim of a relational attack respond?
- If possible, document the attack. If it was sent via e-mail or I.M., or posted on the Web or a blog, make copies. Try to trace its origins. If you have a friend who knows where it originated, get them to tell you.
- Don’t publicly confront your attacker. Getting a reaction from you is what she wants. Moreover, like physical bullies, the social aggressor plans her attacks so that you will probably lose any open confrontation.
- Don’t retaliate. Relational bullies—especially those of the Queen Bee variety—are highly adept at ingratiating themselves with adults. You’re likely to end up accused of being the aggressor.
- Make your attacker an “unperson.” If you encounter her publicly, stare right through her. As far as you’re concerned, she is now invisible.
- Beware of spies and bankers. If another girl who is a member of a circle that also includes the aggressor approaches you expressing sympathy, don’t divulge your feelings about the attack. She may be a spy for the attacker, or a “banker”—a girl who collects gossip and rumors for her own purposes.
- Recruit reliable friends. The attack will end when it runs out of people who will believe and spread the information. Get friends you trust to spread the truth about the claims and refute the lies.
- Seek adult input. It is difficult to maintain your perspective when you are the victim of gossip or slander. The counsel of a caring and understanding adult can do wonders for your morale and self-confidence.
- Face your attacker in private. That takes her audience out of the picture. Be calmly assertive, not aggressive. Tell her you know of the attack, and know that she can stop it. Tell her the attack hurt you, and request that she put a stop to it. Don’t expect her to openly agree. Watch and see what happens next.
- Take the problem to a responsible adult. If the attack persists, this is about your only option. Take the documentation and any other information that can identify the aggressor to a trusted counselor or school administrator. Ask that they not identify you as the source of the information, if at all possible. If the attack didn’t occur at school, discuss the problem with your parents. If the attack included documented death threats, it may be a matter for the police.