ADHD Kids and Bullying Vulnerability

by | Dec 20, 2011 | School Success and Learning, Self-Confidence

Why ADHD boosts vulnerability to bullying; solutions for parents and educators of special needs children.

I had pleasure of speaking with Peggy Dolan from the Edge Foundation who does wonderful work on coaching students with ADHD. Here is our interview and the two part series on bullying and ADHD that Edge posted on their site with permission to duplicate.

An Interview With Dr. Michele Borba About ADHD & Bullying

by Peggy Dolan

Bullying is in the news all the time lately, but how often do you see it linked to ADHD? Dr. Michele Borba knows a lot about the connection between ADHD and bullying. We spoke with her recently and are thrilled to pass along this important information to you.

Edge:  Seems like most parents of ADHD kids hear their child called a bully at one time or another. From the child’s perspective it can seem like every time they make a mistake, someone cries “bully.”  What is bullying?

Borba:   Every kid squabble, tease, or tiff is not bullying. The biggest problem we have right now with all of the awareness and discussion about bullying (which is good) is that no one is on the same page on the definition of bullying (which is a problem). So the first step to stopping bullying is to make sure that we are all using the same definition.

Edge:  Do you have a good definition of bullying to share with our readers?

Borba:  I prefer the definition of bullying offered by Olweus Bullying Prevention Program:

  1. Bullying is intentional, negative behavior.  It is not an accident.
  2. Bullying is usually repeated. It becomes a pattern of behavior repeated over time.
  3. Bullying involves a power imbalance in play. The bully targets a child who has less power than him or herself.  This can mean bigger in status, power, as well as in size-it’s someone who generally cannot hold their own.

Edge: So where does teasing fit in?

Borba:  Bullying is different from teasing. Every kid in the world gets teased, but the teaser usually can speak up and stop the teasing.  Teasing can be friendly or unfriendly and generally is amongst two kids on an equal level.

Furthermore, there are 5 types of bullying and different types of bullying happen at different ages:

  1. Physical bullying – slamming, kicking, punishing, pinching behaviors
  2. Emotional cruelty – girls do this best but boys are also guilty.  This is also considered relational aggression. It’s the gossip and ridicule behind the scenes.  Isolation, lies, rumors are some other examples of this type of bullying
  3. Verbal – including name calling.  Interestingly enough, most bullying starts verbally and escalates to another type of bullying (or more intense verbal abuse) if not nipped in the bud.
  4. Sexual harassment – humiliation, threats, or intimidation of a sexual nature which is starting at younger ages.  It’s not unheard of for elementary-aged girls to report behavior that is sexual harassment.
  5. Electronic or cyber bullying – any electronic means be it text, email on a website which is used to harass or intimidate. This is the newest type of bullying that gets the most attention.

Edge:  Why do some children get bullied more than others?

Borba:  There is no one reason why a child is a bully or a victim.  Yet we know that certain dynamics makes a child more vulnerable. Children tend to be picked on for their “differences.” These are children for some reason “stand out” from the pack and because they do they become easy targets.

When I do focus groups with kids of varying ages and ask: “Who is someone usually bullied”, they say, “Someone who is different.” Being too quiet or  too good of a student or having acne or being a different race; having a speech impediment or being impulsive or too sensitive are a few of the traits that get picked up on and targeted by bullies. After all, everyone is different in some way or another. Unfortunately ADHD children often have visual differences or quirks that can make them easier targets.

Also, victims can also become bullies. Research indicates that 13% of the time, victims will become bullies — or bullies become victims — in different situations. Bullying is situational and bullying is always a relational problem.

Edge:  Can you tell us more about how ADHD and bullying are related?

Borba:  ADHD contributes to both ends of the bullying cycle. First, students are often bullied because they are different and let’s face it: ADHD children are sometimes quirky. Children who are “different” – that word again – and  stand out are the most likely to be bullied. On the other side of things, ADHD children (and adults) often have to work harder at emotional skills and self control leading to them act or be perceived as bullies.

Here are a few of the issues I find that students with ADHD face:

  • Poorer impulse control:  The person with ADHD often gets set off too quickly.  They aren’t able to put on their emotional brake system on and have an opportunity to think before reacting.
  • Weaker emotional intelligence:  Kids with ADHD often can’t pick up on or read another child’s cues. This means they can’t see the other person is upset, offended, or ticked off by their actions.
  • Inappropriate voice tone: I’ve observed that children with ADHD often speak too loudly or too quickly and have more difficulty conversing in a give-and-take fashion. These qualities can intimidate others and set up a power imbalance that leads to bullying.
  • Lack of tact: Back to impulse control. People with ADHD have a more difficult time stopping and thinking before they speak. They just blurt things out.
  • Poor anger management:  Part of the challenges of ADHD is that it can harder to regulate one’s emotions and identify you are getting out of control.  An important quality of healthy relationships is the ability to stop and slow down when you are upset.  People with ADHD often speak before they think. This leads to saying hurtful things that can set up a vicious bullying cycle.
  • Lack of social skills: Have you noticed interrupting is a symptom of many with ADHD?  The lack of social skills can impede their friendship-making abilities and make them more vulnerable in that social jungle. Some ADHD kids also have autism spectrum or depression because of this they may appear to be angry or unfriendly. Social skills are learned and can be taught. ADHD children often lack critical friendship-making skills that could help reduce the vulnerability to being targeted by bullies.
  • Poor problem solving abilities:  Research is emerging that reveals people with ADHD have delayed development in their executive functions – including problem solving skills. New research also shows a correlation between poor problem solving skills and kids who are bullies or victims. Problem solving is yet another skills that can be taught.

Edge: How do you teach kids how to stop being a bully?

Borba: You can train kids with strategies to compensate for their ADHD deficits. UCLA, Duke University, and USC are a few universities whose research shows that social skills are teachable. I find a common adult mistake is trying to tell kids with ADHD what they need to do (lecturing, discussing or even giving a worksheet on friendship making). This approach generally is unsuccessful in helping the child acquire the essential new habit, and so the child fails to learn the crucial social skills. Instead try these steps are proven to be more effective:

  • Show, not tell, the child any new skill (just like you would in sports).  For instance, a football coach demonstrates a good throw before asking the player to try it.  Then the coach gives feedback and suggestions on how to improve that skill and the player rehearses the throw over and over before they have mastery. Children learn skills best by showing, modeling, pointing out the skill in context so they have a model to copy.
  • Identify the specific skills your child needs. Your child will need a “replacer skill” to take the place of the behavior that you want to change. If possible, observe your child in a social situation. What type of behavior is getting child in trouble in the social scene? Why is the other kid rejecting him? What is the child doing that may be impeding him from gaining entry into the social scene? There may be a number of skills. Identifying them may be tough. If you need help, Arnold Goldstein’s manual, Skillstreaming the Elementary Aged-Child is an educator classic that lists specific friendship making skills. My book, Nobody Likes Me: Everybody Hates Me describes the top 25 friendship-making skills. Your child’s teacher, school psychologist or counselor can be goldmines and offer not only resources but also pinpoint the skills.
  • Teach only one skill at a time.  Start by teaching one small skill to boost your child’s competence. Work with the child until she has mastered it before layering on a more complex one. Don’t try to do too much at once which can overwhelm and frustrate the child. Each new skill takes a time to learn and for a child to internalize so he “owns it” and can finally use it with peers. Research shows that the average length of time it takes to acquire a new skill is 21 days of repetition. So don’t teach too many different strategies at once. Instead figure out what skill the child needs, and teach it (by modeling and pointing it out in context). Then make sure to provide a lot of practice opportunities so your child can build confidence and finally integrate it into natural behavior. It will then become second nature.
  • Give the opportunity to practice, practice, practice any new behavior. You don’t teach someone how to calm down in the middle of the meltdown.  They need to rehearse the new skill in a calm moment to rewire their brains to react in the heat of the moment.
  • Start now! The earlier you start teaching the better. Habits start early and become entrenched; entrenched habits are harder to break.
  • Don’t try to go alone. Get the help of at the other adults in the child’s life – be it a teacher, Big Brother, grandparent, school counselor or ADHD coach. Therapy only occurs once a week for an hour.  A child needs regularly, hourly feedback.  This can happen when all adults share the same behavior plan for the child.
  • Make sure your child is surrounded by caring supportive people. Bullying is a relational problem so who you hang out with makes a huge difference on whether you are involved with bullying. Bullying and aggressive behaviors are contagious! Become friends with your child’s friends, visit the school occasionally, and keep your eyes open. Make sure your child knows which staff members he can go to for support. Every child needs an ally -especially a child with ADHD.

Edge: What are the steps to take if your child is being bullied?

Borba:  Talk to your child first.  Don’t try to figure out what caused the bullying — usually your child won’t know that answer. Instead aim to figure out where and when the bullying is happening.  Bullying is almost always a repeated pattern and usually happens at the same place and the same time. Gathering those answers will help you figure out how to create a safety plan for your child. Here are some questions to ask your child:

  1. Where is it happening?
  2. Who are you with?
  3. Did anyone give you support?
  4. What time did it happen?
  5. Did you tell someone? Who? Did the person help?
  6. Did you try to stop it? Did it work?

Keep in mind, your child may not be able to give you these answers, so don’t press. He honestly may not know. Chances are your child did nothing to cause this intentional pain. You may need to find an adult who sees your child to give you the perspective and answers you need. Your goal is to ideally work with staff in developing a plan that can help change the situation and make your child feel safe.

Edge: What are some of the social skills that kids with ADHD need to learn to help prevent bullying?

Borba: There are dozens of discrete social skills we all use.  Here are a few places to start to learn more so you can help your child:

This article was written by Peggy Dolane of the Edge Foundation.   Edge Foundation provides ADHD coachesfor high school and college students with ADHD.

Dr. Michele Borba is a former classroom teacher who has worked in regular education as well as with children with learning, physical, behavioral and emotional disabilities, and in a private practice for troubled youth. She earned her Doctorate in Educational Psychology and Counseling from the University of San Francisco, an M.A. in Learning Disabilities and B.A. from the University of Santa Clara, and a Life Teaching Credential from San Jose State University. Michele is the “go-to” expert on parenting, bullying prevention, education and child/teen issues for numerous news organizations including the NBC Today Show and Dr. Drew’s Lifechangers. We are all fortunate that she has devoted more than 30 years of her life to developing a framework to strengthen children’s character and build moral school climates. Read more about here. You can follow Dr. Borba on twitter @MicheleBorba