"Mean girls" syndrome studied
Jamie Ostrov looks at why girls turn to a different type of relational aggression
By IRENE LIGUORI
It's no accident that Jamie M. Ostrov holds a third-degree black belt in karate and also specializes in relational aggression.
Never a victim of school-yard fisticuffs himself as a boy, Ostrov, an assistant professor of psychology, began training in martial arts at a young age and continued it into adulthood. Through the years, he has observed that boys who display aggressive behavior often wind up being referred to a martial arts studio to learn why fighting and hitting should only be a last resortnot a first response.
"The discipline and structure and skills are very empowering," notes Ostrov. Now, the newest member of the Department of Psychology facultyand its only developmental psychologist at presentis using his talents to study young children and find out why girls turn to a very different kind of relational aggression.
He and other researchers also want to discover effective, empowering tools to help girls combat somewhat invisible, but brutally damaging, opponentsgossip, reputation-bashing, social exclusion and boyfriend swipingthat can turn adolescence into an emotional land mine for young women. This is the so-called "mean girls" syndrome that has captivated the media's attention in recent years.
It is the contention of cutting-edge researchers like Ostrov that some of the relational aggression behaviors that lead to problems for girls in their teen years begin as early as age 3.
"We want to understand what might be causing these behaviors and how best to stop them," Ostrov says.
He recently presented some of his most current research at the meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development in Atlanta, where he cochaired a symposium and presented a paper, "Relational Aggression and Friendships During Early Childhood: 'If You Don't Give Me That, I Won't be Your Friend.'"
Ostrov's paper appears as part of a major new body of research in a special issue of "Early Education and Development," which he edited along with Nicki R. Crick of the University of Minnesota. Ostrov is particularly excited because, he says, the issue almost doubles the body of research on relational aggression in young children.
Ostrov serves as a consultant for a project funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, for which Crick is principal investigator, called "Transition to Kindergarten and Relational Aggression." He also served as project director for a three-year investigation with Crick called "A Longitudinal Study of Relational Aggression in Preschool," funded by the National Science Foundation.
Aggressive behavior in girls from ages 3 to 5 tends to be more direct, but by early adolescence it starts becoming much more covert, Ostrov says. He notes that girls who are victims of this behavior are more likely to demonstrate symptoms like depression, anxiety and academic problems.
How can girls break out of this mode? Ostrov says a number of people have rushed forward to propose intervention strategies, but he is concerned that some of them may be premature.
"Much of the popular press has really picked up on this problem," Ostrov says. "But we currently don't know enough about these behaviors to attempt some the strategies being proposed. We need to be cautious that we don't go into some of these strategies without research guiding us."
Girls who exhibit something called "hostile attribution bias" sometimes have a tendency to engage in relational aggression, Ostrov says. A girl might walk down a hallway and see two of her peers whispering and laughing as she approaches. She might jump to the conclusion from this ambiguous situation that she is the object of their ridicule. How do you teach her new, positive ways to deal with such situations?
While at the University of Pennsylvania working on his master's degree in psychological services, Ostrov says he witnessed one of the first interventions for relational aggression designed by Steve Leff. Called the "Friend to Friend Project," the 16-week course involved young people, teachers, playground monitors and parents. Ostrov hopes he and his colleagues at UB will design an intervention program based on research that takes place here.
Ostrov obtained his bachelor's degree summa cum laude from Colgate University, and a graduate certificate in applied developmental psychology, an M.S. and a Ph.D. in child psychology, all from the University of Minnesota's Institute of Child Development.
A native of Albany, Ostrov wanted to come back to New York and to UB because "this is truly the flagship research institute in the state," he says. He was attracted specifically by the university's Center for Children and Families, which is a leading research center nationally for behavioral problems among children.
Ostrov says he been tremendously impressed with the quality of graduate students he's encountered in the psychology department since arriving last fall.
"They are very inquisitive, have good research skills and are really motivated to help people," Ostrov says. "The department is doing a good job of preparing scholar/practitioners." He currently supervises 10 undergraduate students who he is guiding through honors research projects. "I've been inspired by them," he says.
Ostrov and his wife, Robin, who works for Delaware North, live in Amherst.