Cover Story

Boys who enter the juvenile justice system are often prone to physical aggression, making up about 84 percent of juvenile arrests for violent crimes, according to statistics.

While violent-crime rates for girls are on the rise, about half of their arrests are for nonviolent offenses such as truancy, running away and drinking. An intriguing line of research, however, suggests that another form of aggression may lead girls into trouble.

For about a decade, University of Minnesota researcher and psychologist Nicki Crick, PhD, has been studying relational aggression, her term for a behavior she has seen in girls as young as age 2.5 years old. While physically aggressive youngsters use physical threats as agents of harm, relationally aggressive girls treat relationships as harm agents, much like pawns on a chessboard. Gossiping, withdrawing affection to get what you want, and using social exclusion to retaliate against a friend are all examples. While some boys exhibit relational aggression, girls show the behavior far more often, Crick finds. The behavior appears to be motivated by the desire to maintain an exclusive friendship or relationship, she adds.

Studies highlight some intriguing features of the behavior. Crick, for instance, has published three studies, most recently in Child Development (Vol. 73, No. 4), showing that relationally aggressive girls display "hostile attribution bias," the tendency to interpret events in a paranoid manner. That's true for physically aggressive kids as well. But while physically aggressive youngsters show this tendency in relation to physical threats, relationally aggressive youngsters do so only in relational contexts. A relationally aggressive girl may overhear two girls talking about having a party, for instance, and assume she has been deliberately excluded.

While it's not yet clear how hostile attribution bias produces or maintains relationally aggressive behavior, Crick plans to investigate the link further.

Other researchers are studying possible parenting influences on relationally aggressive behavior. In studies here and abroad, psychologist Craig Hart, PhD, of Brigham Young University, is comparing levels of reported physical and relational aggression in young children and the degree of parental coercive behavior, such as spanking and yelling, and controlling behavior, such as withholding love to punish a child. In a study presented in the book "Measuring Father Involvement," (Erlbaum, 2003), for instance, Hart and colleagues demonstrate a strong relationship between Chinese fathers' degree of psychological control and levels of relational aggression in their daughters. Crick has found the same thing with American girls.

While no one has shown a tie between high levels of relational aggression and girls' propensity to break the law, psychologists in the juvenile justice system say they see the behavior all the time. Patti Chamberlain, PhD, for instance, who runs a novel foster-care program for juvenile offenders (see Youth programs cut crime, costs), incorporates the knowledge base on relational aggression in her work with foster parents, training them to recognize and address relationally aggressive patterns in girls in their charge. Crick and others are conducting longitudinal studies that should provide more answers.

Meanwhile, Stephen Leff, PhD, a child clinical psychologist at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, has designed a school-based group intervention that addresses relational aggression in urban African-American elementary school girls. Called Friend to Friend, the program uses creative modalities such as cartoons, videotape illustrations and role plays to teach relationally aggressive girls skills to tame their anger and better meet social challenges like gossiping. Now in its third year of funding from the National Institute of Mental Health, the program is among the first to intervene with this at-risk group of girls.

Given the importance of the phenomenon in causing and maintaining difficulties for these girls, it's imperative to keep studying it, Chamberlain believes. "We spent a lot of years trying to ignore relational aggression because it's so hard to target and deal with," she comments. "But it's pretty clear it's not a great strategy for dealing with things."

Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.