BYU Today

Sugar, Spice, and a Touch of Vice

A BYU study reports girls demonstrate relationally aggressive behaviors as early as preschool.

A recent BYU study published in the journal Early Education and Development shows that not all little girls are made of sugar, spice, and everything nice. While less-than-sweet aggressive behaviors are often associated with children of the snips and snails variety, girls can be aggressive, though in different ways.

Relationally aggressive behaviors—such as excluding others and withdrawing friendship—are the preferred type of aggression among girls, and may show up as early as preschool, according to the BYUstudy.

“We are all aware of girls who secure their social hierarchy through relationship manipulation during adolescence,” says David A. Nelson (BS ’95), assistant professor in the School of Family Life. “But it is striking that these aggressive strategies are already apparent and related to increased social centrality in preschool.” Previous studies involved children older than 8 years and have typically focused only on physical aggression as it relates to peer status.

Girls sitting on a park bench.

A new BYU study finds that even in preschool “queen bees” will spread malicious rumors or tell secrets to maintain their social standing. Researchers say that young girls have figured out from their environment that relationally aggressive strategies can be used to their advantage. Photo by Bradley Slade.

Who are these girls, sometimes called queen bees? According to the study, they are the controversial children—those who receive a substantial number of both “like” and “dislike” nominations from their peers. Accordingly, they are the children with a strong social impact, being both popular and feared.

“The controversial child is socially savvy,” says Craig H. Hart (BS ’80), a coauthor and a professor in the School of Family Life. “They are good resource controllers, socially skilled, popular, conscientious, and socially integrated and yet are among the most aggressive, dominant, and arrogant children in the peer group. It is this bi-strategic mix of positive and negative behavior that allows them to maintain their standing in the social hierarchy.”

The researchers assessed relational and physical aggression as well as sociable behavior using peer and teacher reports. Peer nominations of acceptance and rejection (like and dislike nominations) were also collected.

The researchers asked 328 preschoolers to identify three children they liked to play with and three they did not like to play with from a picture board. They also had the children identify the peers in their class who exhibited certain sociable behaviors, physically aggressive behaviors, and relationally aggressive behaviors.

The preschoolers associated with relationally aggressive behaviors were more likely to be girls, and their relationally aggressive tactics included not allowing a specific child to play with the group, demanding that other children not play with a specific child, and refusing to listen to someone they were mad at. They can use more sophisticated strategies as well, such as spreading malicious rumors or telling secrets.

“It is pertinent and somewhat disturbing to note that by the age of 4 a substantial number of children have apparently figured out from their environment that relational aggressive strategies can be used to their advantage and are rewarded with social status,” says Clyde C. Robinson (BS ’72), coauthor and an associate professor in the School of Family Life.

With the study’s findings, research continues with the hope of finding possible sources of these early, relationally aggressive behaviors.

“Just now, we’re realizing how damaging it can be,” says Carianne Bacon (BA ’03), a graduate student in the Marriage, Family, and Human Development program. “We want to see where the children are developing this behavior because it’s damaging them—not to mention hurting their friends and relationships. They’re more likely to be rejected by peers and have negative consequences in other areas.”