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Bullying and ADHD

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Illustration of a child being bullied by peers

By Lisa Fields

Could your child with ADHD be involved in bullying, either as a victim or perpetrator? Having ADHD may increase the risk, according to research. Getting your child support may help them deflect a bully’s attention or find a healthier outlet for their negative emotions or impulses, which should improve their quality of life.

“Professionals can give children with ADHD the resources they need to thrive and have healthy peer relationships,” says Y. Mimi Ryans, a licensed clinical social worker in Columbia, Md., who works with patients who have been involved in bullying.

Why children with ADHD may be bullied

A study in the Journal of Child & Adolescent Trauma that examined data from the 2018 National Survey of Children’s Health, which included data from more than 23,000 children, found that children with anxiety were at greatest risk of being bullied. Following that came children with ADHD, behavioral problems, learning disabilities, and depression.

“Children with single or multiple mental, emotional and behavioral challenges are easily identified by their peers who are bullies,” says study author Ayodeji Iyanda, PhD, assistant professor of geography at Prairie View A&M University in Texas. “Characteristics of bullies include preying on the perceived ‘weak’ or ‘vulnerable’ individuals.”

Some children with ADHD don’t have the social skills to make friends easily.

“Isolation is catnip to a bully, because they know that the victim really has no one to stand up for them,” says Laurence Miller, PhD, a licensed clinical and forensic psychologist in Boca Raton, Fla., who treats patients with ADHD. “The more likely you are to have a group of friends … you’re less likely to be a target.”

Certain behaviors associated with ADHD may attract a bully’s attention. For example, a Swedish study in the Journal of Psychiatric Research found that poor coordination made some children with ADHD targets for bullies.

“Symptoms of ADHD like impulsivity and hyperactivity can have negative impacts on healthy social functioning, which can increase the risk for being bullied,” says licensed psychologist Susan M. Swearer, PhD, chair of the department of educational psychology and co-director of the Bullying Research Network at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “A student who is socially anxious may avoid being around other students and can be a target for kids who bully others. (And) symptoms like withdrawal and depressed mood can also be a risk for being bullied.”

Children with ADHD may not know how to read social cues, so they may be viewed as a nuisance by their classmates.

“A lot of times, they are seen as aggressive or annoying by peers,” Ryans says. “Sometimes when they are bullied, it is actually seen as retaliation for their own behaviors.”

Additionally, side effects from ADHD medication may attract a bully’s attention.

“Children with ADHD under medication may sometimes appear confused or slow to respond when attacked,” Iyanda says. “Medication for treating ADD/ADHD (may) make them vulnerable, causing a sudden change in personality and making them a prime target of bullies.”

Why some children with ADHD may be bullies

All children with ADHD aren’t necessarily vulnerable to bullies. In fact, some kids with ADHD bully others.

“Some children with ADHD have been otherwise found as the perpetrator of bullying instead of the victim due to their impulsivity and hyperreactivity,” Iyanda says. “The same reason they are susceptible to victimization … is responsible for them being more likely to be a perpetrator themselves.”

In some cases, children with ADHD who bully others are being bullied by someone else.

“What they do is they just transfer this down the pecking order,” Miller says. But, Miller says, predatory bullies — whether they have ADHD or not — “almost always have a comorbid diagnosis called conduct disorder …. These are kids who get off on having power. How do you have power when you’re a kid? You have power by picking on other kids.”

Negative effects of bullying

When a child is repeatedly teased, threatened, excluded or shoved by a bully, they may feel isolated and hopeless about their situation.

“It may further worsen their health conditions, leading to compounded health issues such as anxiety, depression, isolation, loneliness or even suicidality,” Iyanda says.

Because children with ADHD may not know how to respond to a bully, they may think of other ways to avoid the situation.

“If all you’re thinking about is, ‘When is this bully going to find me again?’ you’re not going to be concentrating much in class,” Miller says. “You’re probably going to miss days of school for various reasons, stomachaches and other excuses.”

A bullying victim may begin to act withdrawn, or their grades may drop.

“Bullying negatively affects students’ academic performance, friendships and self-esteem, regardless of mental health status,” Swearer says. “However, students with an underlying vulnerability such as ADHD, anxiety and depression might not have the coping skills necessary to avoid involvement in bullying.”

How parents can help

How can a parent help a child who is experiencing bullying? Talk to your child regularly about their friends and interests so that they’ll feel comfortable coming to you when they have a problem.

“Parents need to strike (up) conversations with their kids and establish trust zones,” Iyanda says. “Constant observation of mood changes and, in the extreme, bodily injuries, can be a sign of the experience of bullying.”

It’s not uncommon for children to hide their bullying experiences from their parents.

“Many children who are struggling don’t want to be seen as different, so they don’t seek help,” Ryans says. “It is the responsibility of the parents to get them help.”

When bullying victims reveal details about their experiences, don’t reach out to the school until you hear what your child wants from you.

“That doesn’t mean you have to do whatever they want; your job as the parents is to protect your kid,” Miller says. “What (parents) can do is let their kids know that they’ll support them in any reasonable way to keep their kids safe … and then work with the school.”

Bullying perpetrators rarely share details about their bullying exploits with their parents. You may not find out about this behavior unless you’re contacted by the school. Instead of being defensive about the accusations, learn what you can about the situation.

“If there is something that is spurring the aggressive behavior, try to find out what it is,” Miller says. “Sometimes a professional can identify problems that a school, a teacher, a parent may not be aware of. And if there is a way to help this child sublimate that aggressive urge into something else, whether it’s sports, whether it’s helping them do better at school, (do that).”

How therapists can help

Some families work with the child’s school to improve a bullying situation. Other times, professional help may be needed.

“For some students, avoiding the bully (or) diffusing the bullying by using humor might work,” Swearer says. “For other students, assertiveness training might be most effective.”

A therapist may help your child develop strategies to thwart a bully’s attention.

“The kind of therapy that works best with these kids is not really therapy in the traditional sense; it’s more like life-coaching, skills-teaching,” Miller says. “(We) teach them non-violent ways to deflect — basically, ways of making yourself less of a target and making yourself less fun to be a victim.”

If you’re concerned that your child may be involved with bullying or may benefit from gaining social skills, you might consider searching for a therapist who has expertise in ADHD and bullying involvement.

Sources:

Journal of Child & Adolescent Trauma

Journal of Psychiatric Research

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