Adolescence can be one of the most difficult times of life. Bodies are changing, hormones can race and emotions can fluctuate. Add relational aggression to the mix, and your child could be in for a very rough time.

Relational aggression is a form of emotional bullying, consisting frequently of lies, gossip, reputation-bashing and social exclusion. In short, it’s an attempt at psychological and social control.

This form of bullying is most commonly associated with girls. While boys generally are socialized to be more overtly or physically aggressive, girls have been found to be just as controlling — just in more covert ways. Nevertheless, neither gender is immune from mean tween behavior.

Relational aggression can have serious consequences for its victims. They often experience depression, anxiety and academic problems. In some extreme cases, victims have turned to drugs for relief or attempted suicide.

It’s one more reason parents today need to be vigilant during these rocky years. Keeping your children socially safe can become as important as keeping them physically safe.

If your child is becoming more withdrawn, doesn’t want to call anyone or spend time with any friends, it’s wise to start questioning what’s going on in her life. Kids don’t always want to talk about being teased or ostracized.

The best thing you can do for your children in these cases, is spend more time with them. Plan activities where you can just be together. During that time, you can ask a question or two about how things are going, but don’t press the issue. Many adolescents will stop talking out of fear you may step in and try to fix things. Oftentimes, though, your children will just open up and begin talking when you’re engaged in other activities together.

You may also bring up the topic in subtle ways. You may go to the library or bookstore together, casually glance at a book about mean tweens and say it looks interesting.

If your child does start talking, ask her if she wants suggestions or ideas. You may also talk about an experience you had as a kid; just keep it brief and be careful not to make the conversation about you. You can also try telling your child that you knew of this happening to another child and how she handled it successfully. It’s helpful for children to understand they’re not the only ones who have experienced this sort of aggression.

You may also want to check in with your child’s teacher and the guidance counselor at school. They can observe what’s happening at school, and you can work together to address the issue.

Above all, remember the most important role you can play is to be more a listener than a fixer. Most children will move through the experience, emotionally healthy, as long as they have someone who will listen to them.

If you notice your child is acting a bit cocky and moving quickly from one friend to the next, watch her to see how she talks to other children. If you suspect your child is being mean, you need to address it directly and reinforce your family’s values. It’s important for children to develop empathy and consider how they would feel if they were on the receiving end of this behavior.

Modeling is your best weapon against relational aggression. If you model empathy, compassion and reaching out to others, you can expect those same behaviors from your children. If you’re simply pushing your child to be the best, that’s what she will work toward, whatever it takes. If you’re supporting positive activities, on the other hand, you’ll more likely have a kind, positive and, ultimately, successful child.

As published in the July 2006 Edition of the Holmen Courier and Onalaska Community Life.