As most research on conduct disorder (CD) has been conducted on male participants, it has been suggested that female-specific symptoms may be underestimated based on current DSM-5 criteria. In particular, relational aggression, i.e. the hurtful, often indirect, manipulation of relationships with the intention of damaging the other’s social position, has been proposed as a characteristic of CD that is more common in females. In addition, sex-specific studies on correlates of relational aggressive behavior are lacking. Relational aggression may be strongly related to the correlates of proactive aggression, namely low affective empathy, and high levels of callous-unemotional (CU) traits and relational victimization. Thus, the present study investigated sex differences in relational aggression, and associations between relational aggression and correlates of proactive aggression in 662 adolescents with CD (403 females) and 849 typically-developing controls (568 females) aged 9–18 years (M = 14.74, SD = 2.34) from the European multi-site FemNAT-CD study. Females with CD showed significantly higher levels of relational aggression compared to males with CD, whereas no sex differences were seen in controls. Relational aggression was only partly related to correlates of proactive aggression in CD: Independent of sex, CU traits showed a positive association with relational aggression. In females only, cognitive, but not affective empathy, was negatively associated with relational aggression. Relational victimization was more strongly associated with relational aggression in males compared to females. Despite interesting sex specific correlates of relational aggression, effects are small and the potential clinical implications should be investigated in future studies.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). DC: Washington.
Andershed, H., Stattin, H., Kerr, M., & Levander, S. (2002). Psychopathic traits in non-referred youths: A new assessment tool. In E. Blauuw & L. Sheridan (Eds.), Psychopaths Current International Perspectives (pp. 131–158). The Hague.
Andershed, H., Hodgins, S., & Tengström, A. (2007). Convergent validity of the youth psychopathic traits inventory (YPI): Association with the psychopathy checklist: Youth version. Assessment, 14(2), 144–154.
Archer, J. (2004). Sex differences in aggression in real-world settings: A meta-analytic review. Review of General Psychology, 8(4), 291–322.
Archer, J., & Coyne, S. M. (2005). An integrated review of indirect, relational, and social aggression. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 9(3), 212–230.
Baardewijk, Y. V., Stegge, H., Andershed, H., Thomaes, S., Scholte, E., & Vermeiren, R. (2008). Measuring psychopathic traits in children through self-report. The development of the Youth Psychopathic traits Inventory - Child Version. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 31(3), 199–209. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijlp.2008.04.004
Barker, E. D., Arseneault, L., Brendgen, M., Fontaine, N., & Maughan, B. (2008). Joint development of bullying and victimization in adolescence: Relations to delinquency and self-harm. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 47(9), 1030–1038.
Batanova, M. D., & Loukas, A. (2011). Social anxiety and aggression in early adolescents: Examining the moderating roles of empathic concern and perspective taking. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 40(11), 1534–1543.
Blair, R. J. R. (2013). The neurobiology of psychopathic traits in youths. Nature Publishing Group, 14(11), 786–799.
Bonica, C., Arnold, D. H., Fisher, P. H., Zeljo, A., & Yershova, K. (2003). Relational aggression, relational victimization, and language development in preschoolers. Social Development, 12(4), 551–562.
Burt, S. A., Donnellan, M. B., & Tackett, J. L. (2012). Should social aggression be considered “antisocial?”. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 34(2), 153–163.
Camodeca, M., & Goossens, F. A. (2005). Aggression, social cognitions, anger and sadness in bullies and victims. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, and Allied Disciplines, 46(2), 186–197.
Caravita, S. C. S., Di Blasio, P., & Salmivalli, C. (2009). Unique and interactive effects of empathy and social status on involvement in bullying. Social Development, 18(1), 140–163.
Card, N. A., & Little, T. D. (2006). Proactive and reactive aggression in childhood and adolescence: A meta-analysis of differential relations with psychosocial adjustment. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 30(5), 466–480.
Card, N. A., Stucky, B. D., Sawalani, G. M., & Little, T. D. (2008). Direct and indirect aggression during childhood and adolescence: A meta-analytic review of gender differences, intercorrelations, and relations to maladjustment. Child Development, 79(5), 1185–1229.
Casper, D. M., & Card, N. A. (2017). Overt and relational victimization: A meta-analytic review of their overlap and associations with social-psychological adjustment. Child Development, 88(2), 466–483.
Centifanti, L., Fanti, K., Thomson, N., Demetriou, V., & Anastassiou-Hadjicharalambous, X. (2015). Types of relational aggression in girls are differentiated by callous-unemotional traits, peers and parental overcontrol. Behavioral Sciences, 5(4), 518–536.
Crapanzano, A. M., Frick, P. J., & Terranova, A. M. (2009). Patterns of physical and relational aggression in a school-based sample of boys and girls. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 38(4), 433–445.
Crick, N. R., & Dodge, K. A. (1996). Social information-processing mechanisms in reactive and proactive aggression. Child Development, 67(3), 993–1002.
Crick, N. R., & Grotpeter, J. K. (1995). Relational aggression, gender, and social-psychological adjustment. Child Development, 66(3), 710–722.
Crick, N. R., Grotpeter, J. K., & Bigbee, M. A. (2002). Relationally and physically aggressive children's intent attributions and feelings of distress for relational and instrumental peer provocations. Child Development, 73(4), 1134–1142.
Czar, K. A., Dahlen, E. R., Bullock, E. E., & Nicholson, B. C. (2010). Psychopathic personality traits in relational aggression among young adults. Aggressive Behavior, 37(2), 207–214.
Davis, M. H. (1980). A multidimensional approach to individual differences in empathy. Austin, Texas: JSAS Catalog of Selected Documents in Psychology.
Dodge, K. A., & Coie, J. D. (1987). Social-information-processing factors in reactive and proactive aggression in children's peer groups. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53(6), 1146–1158.
Eekhout, I., de Vet, H. C. W., Twisk, J. W. R., Brand, J. P. L., de Boer, M. R., & Heymans, M. W. (2014). Missing data in a multi-item instrument were best handled by multiple imputation at the item score level. Journal of Clinical Epidemiology, 67(3), 335–342.
Espelage, D. L., Hong, J. S., Kim, D. H., & Nan, L. (2017). Empathy, attitude towards bullying, theory-of-mind, and non-physical forms of bully perpetration and victimization among U.S. middle school students. Child & Youth Care Forum, 47(1), 45–60.
Essau, C. A., Sasagawa, S., & Frick, P. J. (2006). Callous-unemotional traits in a community sample of adolescents. Assessment, 13(4), 454–469.
Euler, F., Steinlin, C., & Stadler, C. (2017). Distinct profiles of reactive and proactive aggression in adolescents: Associations with cognitive and affective empathy. Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health, 11(1), 1–14.
Evans, S. C., Frazer, A. L., Blossom, J. B., & Fite, P. J. (2018). Forms and functions of aggression in early childhood. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 363, 1–9.
Fite, P. J., Craig, J., e, Lochman, J. E., & Wells, K. C. (2016). Proactive and reactive aggression. In R. J. R. Levesque (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Adolescence. Chem, Switzerland.
Freitag, C. M., Konrad, K., Stadler, C., De Brito, S. A., Popma, A., Herpertz, S. C., et al. (2018). Conduct disorder in adolescent females: current state of research and study design of the FemNAT-CD consortium. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 27(9), 1077–1093.
Heilbron, N., & Prinstein, M. J. (2008). A review and reconceptualization of social aggression: Adaptive and maladaptive correlates. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 11(4), 176–217.
Hipwell, A., Pardini, D. A., Loeber, R., Sembower, M. A., Keenan, K., & Stouthamer-Loeber, M. (2007). Callous-unemotional behaviors in young girls: Shared and unique effects relative to conduct problems. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 36, 293–304.
Kaufman, J., Birmaher, B., Brent, D., Rao, U., Flynn, C., Moreci, P., et al. (1997). Schedule for affective disorders and schizophrenia for school-age children-present and lifetime version (K-SADS-PL): Initial reliability and validity data. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 36(7), 980–988.
Keenan, K., Coyne, C., & Lahey, B. B. (2008). Should relational aggression be included in DSM-V? Journal of American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 47(1), 86–93.
Kljakovic, M., & Hunt, C. (2016). A meta-analysis of predictors of bullying and victimisation in adolescence. Journal of Adolescence, 49(C), 134–145.
Kokkinos, C. M., Voulgaridou, I., & Markos, A. (2016). Personality and relational aggression: Moral disengagement and friendship quality as mediators. Personality and Individual Differences, 95(C), 74–79.
Kunter, M., Schümer, G., Artelt, C., Baumert, J., & Klieme, E. (2002). PISA 2000: Dokumentation der Erhebungsinstrumente [PISA 2000: Documentation of scales]. Berlin.
Lam, S.-F., Law, W., Chan, C.-K., Zhang, X., & Wong, B. P. H. (2018). Will victims become aggressors or vice versa? A cross-lagged analysis of school aggression. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 46(3), 529–541.
Lansford, J. E., Skinner, A. T., Sorbring, E., Giunta, L. D., Deater-Deckard, K., Dodge, K. A., et al. (2012). Boys’ and girls’ relational and physical aggression in nine countries. Aggressive Behavior, 38(4), 298–308.
Lereya, S. T., Copeland, W. E., Zammit, S., & Wolke, D. (2015). Bully/victims: A longitudinal, population-based cohort study of their mental health. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 24(12), 1461–1471.
Loeber, R., Pardini, D. A., Hipwell, A., Stouthamer-Loeber, M., Keenan, K., & Sembower, M. A. (2009). Are there stable factors in preadolescent girls’ externalizing behaviors? Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 37(6), 777–791.
Loudin, J. L., Loukas, A., & Robinson, S. (2003). Relational aggression in college students: Examining the roles of social anxiety and empathy. Aggressive Behavior, 29(5), 430–439.
Maccoby, E. E. (1990). Gender and relationships: A developmental account. American Psychologist, 45(4), 513–520.
Marsee, M. A., & Frick, P. J. (2007). Exploring the cognitive and emotional correlates to proactive and reactive aggression in a sample of detained girls. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 35(6), 969–981.
Marsee, M. A., Barry, C. T., Childs, K. K., Frick, P. J., Kimonis, E. R., Muñoz, L. C., Aucoin, K. J., Fassnacht, G. M., Kunimatsu, M. M., & Lau, K. S. L. (2011). Assessing the forms and functions of aggression using self-report: Factor structure and invariance of the peer conflict scale in youths. Psychological Assessment, 23(3), 792–804.
Marsee, M. A., Frick, P. J., Barry, C. T., Kimonis, E. R., Muñoz Centifanti, L. C., & Aucoin, K. J. (2014). Profiles of the forms and functions of self-reported aggression in three adolescent samples. Development and Psychopathology, 26(3), 705–720.
Murray Close, D., Crick, N. R., & Galotti, K. M. (2006). Children's moral reasoning regarding physical and relational aggression. Social Development, 15(3), 345–372.
Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. (1999). Classifying educational programmes: Manual for ISCED-97 implementation in OECD countries. OECD Publishing. Retrieved from http://www.oecd.org/education/skills-beyond-school/1962350.pdf. Accessed 26 Mar 2019
Perry, K. J., & Ostrov, J. M. (2018). Testing a Bifactor model of relational and physical aggression in early childhood. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 40(1), 93–106.
Preddy, T. M., & Fite, P. J. (2012). Differential associations between relational and overt aggression and children’s psychosocial adjustment. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 34(2), 182–190.
Raine, A., Dodge, K., Loeber, R., Gatzke-Kopp, L., Lynam, D., Reynolds, C., et al. (2006). The reactive–proactive aggression questionnaire: Differential correlates of reactive and proactive aggression in adolescent boys. Aggressive Behavior, 32(2), 159–171.
Rusby, J. C., Crowley, R., Sprague, J., & Biglan, A. (2009). Relational and overt aggression among peers in middle school settings: Behavior correlates and school level predictors. D.C.: Washington.
Salmivalli, C., & Nieminen, E. (2001). Proactive and reactive aggression among school bullies, victims, and bully-victims. Aggressive Behavior, 28(1), 30–44.
Sansone, R. A., Leung, J. S., & Wiederman, M. W. (2013). Having been bullied in childhood: Relationship to aggressive behaviour in adulthood. International Journal of Social Psychiatry, 59(8), 824–826.
Smith, R. L., Rose, A. J., & Schwartz-Mette, R. A. (2009). Relational and overt aggression in childhood and adolescence: Clarifying mean-level gender differences and associations with peer acceptance. Social Development (Oxford, England), 19(2), 243–269.
Smith, C. T., Shepperd, J. A., Miller, W. A., & Graber, J. A. (2016). Perspective taking explains gender differences in late adolescents' attitudes toward disadvantaged groups. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 45(7), 1283–1293.
Soenens, B., Vansteenkiste, M., Goossens, L., Duriez, B., & Niemiec, C. P. (2008). The intervening role of relational aggression between psychological control and friendship quality. Social Development, 17(3), 661–681.
Sutton, J., Smith, P. K., & Swettenham, J. (1999). Social cognition and bullying: Social inadequacy or skilled manipulation? British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 17, 435–450.
Tackett, J. L., Daoud, S. L. S. B., De Bolle, M., & Burt, S. A. (2013). Is relational aggression part of the externalizing spectrum? A bifactor model of youth antisocial behavior. Aggressive Behavior, 39(2), 149–159.
Van der Graaff, J., Branje, S., de Wied, M., Hawk, S., Van Lier, P., & Meeus, W. (2014). Perspective taking and empathic concern in adolescence: Gender differences in developmental changes. Developmental Psychology, 50(3), 881–888.
Van der Graaff, J., Carlo, G., Crocetti, E., Koot, H. M., & Branje, S. (2018). Prosocial behavior in adolescence: Gender differences in development and links with empathy. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 47(5), 1086–1099.
van Noorden, T. H. J., Haselager, G. J. T., Cillessen, A. H. N., & Bukowski, W. M. (2015). Empathy and involvement in bullying in children and adolescents: A systematic review. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 44(3), 637–657.
Voulgaridou, I., & Kokkinos, C. M. (2015). Relational aggression in adolescents: A review of theoretical and empirical research. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 23(C), 87–97.
Wechsler, D. (1997). Wechsler adult intelligence scale -third edition (WAIS-III). Pearson.
Wechsler, D. (1999). Wechsler abbreviated scale of intelligence (WAIS). Pearson.
Wechsler, D. (2003). Wechsler intelligence scale for children - fourth edition (WISC-IV). Pearson.
White, B. A., Gordon, H., & Guerra, R. C. (2015). Callous–unemotional traits and empathy in proactive and reactive relational aggression in young women. Personality and Individual Differences, 75, 185–189.
Conflict of Interest
Author C.M Freitag declares royalties on books on ASD, ADHD, and MDD and is consultant for Roche and Desitin (ASD). Author G. Fairchild has received funding from the European Commission, the MRC, ESRC, CONACYT and Kids’ Company.
All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.
Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
Electronic supplementary material
About this article
Cite this article
Ackermann, K., Kirchner, M., Bernhard, A. et al. Relational Aggression in Adolescents with Conduct Disorder: Sex Differences and Behavioral Correlates. J Abnorm Child Psychol 47, 1625–1637 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10802-019-00541-6
- Relational aggression
- Conduct disorder
- Sex differences
- Callous-unemotional traits
- Relational victimization