Three young children explore transparent shapes on top of a lighted board in their classroom.

Have you ever heard a young child say “You can’t come to my birthday party!” or “I won’t be your friend if you don’t give me that”? Around 3 – 4 years old, children start becoming more aware of how their actions affect others. They are increasingly aware that people may have different feelings about the same situation, and some may use this to their advantage.

Statements like those above may be a sign of relational aggression – “behaviors that are intended to significantly damage another child’s friendship or feelings of inclusion by the peer group” (Crick & Grotpeter 1995, 711). These behaviors often begin in preschool. Like physical aggression, relational aggression is common behavior and developmentally appropriate for this age group. However, we wouldn’t allow children to hurt one another physically, so why do we sometimes brush aside hurtful words? Helping children find alternatives to aggression as early as possible should be one of our main goals as parents, caregivers, and educators.

The following strategies can be helpful when children are displaying relational aggression:

  • Know yourself and whether you unintentionally allow this behavior. When a child tells you to “go away” how do you respond? It is important for the adults to embody the principles they teach throughout the day.
  • If you hear a child telling another child to “go away,” talk with both children. Tell one child to give the other space, but also tell the other child that there are more kind ways to talk to one another.
  • When you hear a child saying something unkind, use the opportunity to teach more positive interaction skills. For example, you could say, “You can tell Sarah that you don’t want to play right now, but you may not say ‘go away,’ because that’s unkind and may hurt her feelings.”
  • Be sure to acknowledge children when they use kind words with their friends or you.
  • Think about games where “everyone wins” if you have a child that choses to leave people out.
  • Teach children appropriate things to say to another child if they don’t want to play with them. Just like you would teach a child to say “thank you,” you can teach them to say things like “I want to play by myself, please” or “can I play with you?”
  • Role play about how to have these conversations. Do so when the child is happy and in good spirits.
  • Use children’s books to point out social themes and how characters problem-solve. This is an easy way to build social skills into daily habits and learning.

Teaching alternatives to all forms of aggression in young children is essential because of the lifelong impacts. Being aware of how we respond to relational aggression, teaching prosocial problem-solving skills, and teaching social skills are critical for our children to experience fulfilling relationships.

Crick, N.R, J.K Grotpeter. 1995. “Relational Aggression, Gender, and Social – Psychological Adjustment.” Child Development 66 (3): 711