Applying Social Cognitive Theory to Explore Relational Aggression across Early Adolescence: A Within- and Between-Person Analysis

Dorothy L. Espelage, Gabriel J. Merrin, Jun Sung Hong, Stella M. Resko

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

22 Scopus citations


In the past two decades, there has been a significant amount of research on children’s relational aggression, which has been found to be associated with psychosocial problems. Longitudinal studies have examined changes in relational aggression during early adolescence in relation to individual characteristics; however, most studies compare individual differences between people with regard to rates of relational aggression. A shortcoming to the current literature is the lack of studies that use a multilevel approach to examine individual differences (between-person) as well as the extent to which individuals deviate from their own typical levels (within-person) over time. In this study, within- and between-person psychological and peer-related predictors of rates of relational aggression over time were examined. Participants included 1,655 students in 5th–8th grade (mean age: 13.01) from four public middle schools in the Midwest, which consisted 828 females and 827 males. In terms of race and ethnicity, 819 (49.5%) were African Americans, followed by 571 (34.5%) Whites, and 265 (16%) Others. Longitudinal data were collected over four waves across two years of middle school. The findings indicated that contrary to the hypothesis that relational aggression would increase over time, there was no significant growth across time. Age, gender, and race were not associated with relational aggression over time; however, consistent with the Social Cognitive Theory, changes in within-person impulsivity, anger, and peer delinquency were all positively related to increases in relational aggression. At the between-person level of analysis, depressive symptoms and peer delinquency were related to relational aggression. Findings suggest that school-based programs that address anger management, impulsivity, empathy, and victimization could help prevent relational aggression.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2401-2413
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Youth and Adolescence
Issue number11
StatePublished - 1 Nov 2018

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
D.L.E. conceived the study, designed the study, collected data, secured IRB, drafted the manuscript and revised the manuscript, and edited the manuscript; G.J.M. conducted the analyses and wrote the Methods and the Results section; J.S.H. wrote the Introduction and the Literature Review, and edited the article; S.M.R. contributed to the Introduction and edited the article. All authors read and approved the final manuscript. Data in this manuscript were drawn from a grant from the CDC (1U01/CE001677) to the lead author. This manuscript’s data will not be deposited. The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018, Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature.


  • Early adolescents
  • Peer relations
  • Relational aggression
  • Social cognitive theory
  • Social information processing theory


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