Children and adolescents sometimes behave aggressively towards their classmates. Aggression can be physical, like fighting and hitting, or relational, like spreading rumors about a peer or excluding them from the group. While those who are on the receiving end can suffer, aggressors are also at risk – they may be victimized for their aggression, that is, picked on and treated badly by their peers. The consequences of peer victimization, which include depression, can be long-lasting. However, the link between being aggressive and being victimized isn’t simple. In our research, my colleagues and I have investigated the nuanced way in which classroom norms affect the interaction between aggression and victimization.
“The classroom environment can play a significant role in shaping the relationship between aggression and victimization.”
We have found that the classroom environment can play a significant role in shaping the relationship between aggression and victimization. Our findings suggest that school classes often have their own norms regarding the behaviors that are tolerated. In classes where many children are physically aggressive, for example, those who engage in consistent physical aggression are less likely to be victimized, possibly because physical aggression is seen as normal. In such classes, however, students who are relationally aggressive are more likely to be victimized. Excluding someone from playtime activities, a form of relational aggression, might be seen as less normal in these physically aggressive classes.
Socialized gender differences
Boys tend to engage in more physical than relational aggression, whereas girls tend to be more relationally than physically aggressive. Does this reflect natural differences between boys and girls? Or, are young people socialized by their peers to behave in gender-typical ways, as they are victimized if they fail to do so? Our research implies that it’s the latter.
In our study, girls who were physically aggressive were more likely to be victimized by their peers than girls who were relationally aggressive. This appears to be because their peers see relational aggression as more normal for girls than physical aggression. In contrast, boys were more likely to be victimized by their peers when they were relationally aggressive than when they were physically aggressive. Again, this may be because children perceive it as normal for boys to demonstrate physical aggression, so boys who are relationally aggressive are “policed” by their peers.
“Are young people socialized by their peers to behave in gender-typical ways, as they are victimized if they fail to do so?”
In a follow-up study, we found that the gender ratio of the class mattered too. In classes with fewer girls than boys, students who were relationally aggressive were more likely to be victimized than those who were physically aggressive – again, perhaps because relational aggression violates the norms in a class in which boys make up the majority. In classes with more girls than boys, those who were relationally aggressive were not victimized as much. Even though we conducted our original studies in Colombia, we’ve seen similar patterns in studies in Canada, Brazil, and China; these effects are present in different cultures, not least because each classroom has its own mini-culture with specific norms and expectations.
The role of peer groups
Most recently, we found that aggressive classroom peer groups – whether they are physically or relationally aggressive – normalize aggressive behavior. The more aggressive the peer group, the less victimized students were for their aggression. Our most striking finding was that children’s expectations about how their peers would respond to aggression were related to the extent to which they themselves were victimized.
Among classroom peer groups in which a larger number of students believed that their classmates would be less supportive of aggressive behavior, students who were physically aggressive were more victimized than those who were relationally aggressive. Meanwhile, in groups who reported that their close friends were less supportive of aggressive behavior, those who were relationally aggressive were more victimized than those who were physically aggressive. Why the difference? Physical aggression is more easily recognizable and disruptive to the classroom environment, whereas relational aggression is more subtle and can be more disruptive to close friendships.
Curbing aggressive behaviors
These findings have helped us understand the mechanisms that social groups use to police the behaviors of their members. Norms and expectations are upheld in part through victimization. The goal of our research is to gain a better understanding of why children victimize their peers, and ultimately to find ways to curb aggressive behaviors. While preventing children from being aggressive is the ideal, until we reach that goal, we should seek ways to protect children more effectively. Perhaps there are ways to ensure that children are part of classroom peer groups that are less likely to victimize them. We hope that finding out more about peer group norms surrounding aggression will help us develop effective tools to combat it, and to make school feel safe for all children.
“While preventing children from being aggressive is the ideal, until we reach that goal, we should seek ways to protect children more effectively.”
Our latest research paper on this topic is part of a special issue on social norms and behavioral development to be published in the International Journal of Behavioral Development this September.