Question: Why is relational bullying in middle school so common?
Answer: Relational bullying becomes highly prevalent during the early middle school years because tweens have strong social skills yet are still quite emotionally immature. The combination creates the perfect breeding ground for many forms of social aggression.
Relational bullying is a subtle form of aggression. As such, effective relational bullies must have a complex understanding of social dynamics. Compared to earlier in development, tweens are better able to read social cues and negotiate complicated interpersonal relationships. These abilities set the stage for relational aggression to flourish.
In addition, a relational bully must know how to cause another person to feel pain. This knowledge requires advanced cognitive and social abilities, including the abilities to take others' perspectives and to empathize. Tweens have recently gained both abilities, which is another reason relational bullying in middle school is common.
Finally, tweens tend to overestimate how much their peers want to hurt them. They may therefore lash out preemptively, even though no harm would have come their way had they not acted. Girls in particular seem to use ostracism, one form of relational aggression, when they think that someone might be planning to reject them.
All in all, tweens' social development is quite advanced. While these social developments allow them to do many positive things, like form long-term friendships and act as leaders, it also enables them to manipulate their peers effectively. As their emotional regulation develops further, relational aggression becomes less common because they learn to put a check on their hurtful behavior.
Leadbeater, Bonnie. Can we see it? Can we stop it? Lessons learned from university-community research collaborations about relational aggression. 2010. School Psychology Review; 39, 4: 588-593.