Relational bullying can be difficult to spot but it’s actually the most pernicious kind, explains Kayleigh Chester

When we talk about bullying we often think about physical and verbal behaviours: stealing lunch money, a shove in the corridor between classes, the name-calling on the school bus. Cyberbullying is frequently discussed too, and has become a particularly hot topic since it emerged over the last decade. However, we may not automatically think of relational bullying.

Relational bullying describes causing harm to a person by damaging friendships and feelings of group acceptance. It describes behaviours that are much more hidden than other forms of bullying, and are often tied up among friendship groups. For example the spreading of rumours, being excluded from groups and social events or using friendship as a bartering tool.

Previous research has found that in the UK both teaching staff and parents are less likely to consider social exclusion when defining bullying. Furthermore, the government webpages do not list any relational bullying behaviours.

Research from the University of Hertfordshire, recently published in the Journal of School Health, has looked specifically at these more hidden behaviours. Data from over 5000 young people who completed the Health Behaviour in School-aged Children survey in England provided a representative sample. In a class of thirty students, approximately five young people said they had been bullied in this way in the past two months.

Teaching staff and parents are less likely to consider social exclusion when defining bullying

The research, which examined the link between bullying and wellbeing, found that relational bullying was associated with the biggest decrease in wellbeing and was more detrimental than either physical or verbal bullying.

Relational bullying is likely to be carried out within friendship circles. As young people move into adolescence, their friendships become more intense and important. Experiencing relational bullying may be more distressing than physical or verbal bullying because it questions the relationships they have come to rely on most.

There is a prevailing stereotype that suggests these are girly behaviours. The media and popular literature often depict girls as being “bitchy” while boys will sort out their problems through fighting. The research moves beyond this, identifying that relational bullying is equally as damaging for boys and girls.

There is undoubtedly cross-over between the four different forms of bullying, but it is important that school anti-bullying policies put as much emphasis on these more hidden bullying behaviours as the more traditional ones. Relational bullying can be difficult to spot because the behaviours are subtle and, as they occur within friendship groups, an outsider may have to distinguish between normal conflict and bullying.

Bullying is a widely acknowledged concern, with the latest Ditch the Label survey finding over a quarter of respondents had been bullied in the previous month. Bullying describes when an individual or group of students repeatedly and intentionally harm another person. There is a power imbalance in bullying that sets it apart from other forms of aggression including fights between students.

Traditionally bullying may have been seen as a rite of passage, but over the last two decades lots of research has demonstrated that bullying can have long lasting, damaging effects. We know that bullying in school has been linked to poor school attendance and lower attainment, and depression and anxiety in adulthood.

It is important to raise awareness of relational bullying through discussions in school. If young people, teaching staff and parents are aware of what constitutes relational bullying and how harmful it can be, it will go a long way in helping to identify and intervene.

Kayleigh Chester is a research associate at the University of Hertfordshire