- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 20, 2003

Hurting others by manipulating relationships is a normal part of development, especially for girls.

Parents shouldn't worry if their child engages in this behavior, called relational aggression, a couple of times a month, says Nicki Crick, a child-development professor at the University of Minnesota. She says she is most concerned about the children who display this behavior frequently or are often the victims of the behavior.

It's normal to have aggressive feelings, says Holly Nishimura, director of community relations at the Ophelia Project, an Erie, Pa.,-based nonprofit children's advocacy organization. The Ophelia Project has created a program called "Creating a Safe Social Climate in Our Schools" to address relational aggression.

"I can't stop what you think or feel, but the moment you act on it, behaving in an aggressive manner, that's unacceptable," Ms.Nishimura says.

Parents can help their children express anger or other feelings directly, instead of via manipulation, by learning and applying the boundaries of acceptable behavior, social scientists and child advocates say. They offer the following tips:

• Involve your daughter in activities such as sports, theater and debating programs, all of which support girls' expression of anger and aggression, encourage team-building and competition, invite them to try out different personas, and encourage them to take a stand and defend their point of view.

• Help her develop friendships outside of school, whether via church or synagogue, volunteer activities, clubs or the neighborhood, so she'll have alternative outlets if her network of school friends goes awry.

• Teach children that conflict is a part of life and does not lead to abandonment. Tell them that their current friendships and relationships are practice for those they'll experience as adults. Help them to learn what hurts them. For example, "What I might learn is that next time I won't be sharing [my secrets] so quickly in a friendship," Ms. Nishimura says.

• Permit children to choose their own buddies and assure them that they do not have to be friends with everyone, although they must be civil and respectful to all.

• Examine the way you relate to your friends and the messages you give your child about friendships. Children are learning from you all the time.

• Don't make popularity an ultimate value in your family. Help your child make a distinction between friendships and popularity.

• Know that teachers can set the climate for a classroom by stating that behavior and words intended to hurt someone are wrong, even if the teacher doesn't know about it or see it occurring.

• Model healthy ways men and women can conduct relationships. If women are passive-aggressive or have to be manipulative to get what they want, girls learn these patterns. Children pick up on how those with less power rely on social manipulation to get what they need.

• Teach your child about relational aggression. Talk about it even when the subject is uncomfortable.

• Work on your own behavior. If the women in a girl's life cannot stand up for themselves, are gossiping all the time about other women, or frequently disparage qualities associated with femininity, then that's what girls will learn for themselves.

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