A growing body of research has linked bullying to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), with one recent Swedish study suggesting that children with ADHD are four times more likely than their peers to be bullies — and an astonishing 10 times more likely to be the victims of bullying behavior. In the United States, about 1 in 5 teens has reported being bullied at school.
As difficult as ADHD is across the board, unhappy peer relationships that feed into bullying are one of the more painful obstacles for kids with ADHD to overcome. A leading researcher, however, suggests that ADHD kids may break the bullying cycle if they can build just one high-quality friendship.
Barriers to Building
ADHD can create barriers to building close relationships, even in early childhood. For example:
- ADHD kids may be impatient and not wait their turn during games.
- ADHD kids may sometimes boss around other children.
- ADHD kids may miss social cues that let them know when a friend is bored or annoyed.
- ADHD kids may have a hard time slowing down and considering their friends’ feelings.
- ADHD kids may seem aggressive or scary when expressing frustration.
- ADHD kids who are more inattentive than hyperactive may avoid other children and simply choose to play alone.
As a result, close friendships are harder to maintain. At the same time, ADHD kids may acquire negative reputations — for being aggressive or just odd — in their peer groups at school or other places.
“A negative reputation can take on a life of its own," notes Amori Yee Mikami, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. "Peers can reinforce it even if the child has changed.” Dr. Mikami’s research has focused on finding ways to help ADHD kids build friendships.
When ADHD Kids Are Bullied
A recent study compared teen girls with and without ADHD and found that those who had ADHD were also more likely than girls without ADHD to have experienced physical bullying, such as hitting and kicking, and verbal or social bullying, such as manipulation or exclusion. “Kids with ADHD are more likely to be bullies and victims of bullying,” Mikami explains. “We know that kids who have trouble making friends bully because they don’t know better ways to interact.” Or, for less aggressive individuals, a negative reputation due to ADHD behaviors may simply make them targets for gossip and bullying.
Stepping in and breaking the bullying cycle is important because of the long-term consequences of bullying and being a bullying victim. These consequences include depression, anxiety, social rejection, and — for victims of bullies — even attempted suicide and death. Bullies also experience long-term problems, including increased risks for substance abuse and mental health problems. Young people who have been both bully and victim experience the most severe long-term consequences.
“If a child with ADHD can have one good friend, that can be a buffer against a lot of problems," Mikami explains. "They get picked on less if they have a friend because they are less vulnerable. They are also less likely to bully if they have a friend.” Mikami adds that this isn’t just a casual friendship, however, but a high-quality relationship in which the children genuinely like each other, get along well, and are supportive of each other. Successfully managing friendship is an important way to learn how to resolve conflict and pay attention to someone else’s feelings — skills kids with ADHD often lack.
How to Encourage Friendship
So if you are concerned about bullying and your ADHD child, work on making it possible for your child to find a close friend. Here’s how to actively encourage the kind of high-quality friendship that could help protect your child from bullying or being a bully:
- Identify a likely candidate. If you aren’t sure who your child seems to like and get along well with, ask teachers or other care providers for their suggestions.
- Invite the child over to your house or out with you for an activity. This will give you control over the agenda, which can be important at first. Most of the research on bullying has focused on elementary school years, ages when parents can still reasonably host activities at home.
- Design a structured activity and keep it short. Kids with ADHD build friendships best when they are involved in fun, structured, time-limited activities that are planned to avoid frustration or boredom. If the children involved are old enough, encourage your child to call this friend and ask what they enjoy doing — this helps build an awareness of others’ interests. Don’t forget healthy snacks and drinks.
- Practice good sportsmanship at home. Help your child learn how to be a gracious winner and a graceful loser by playing board games such as SORRY, which are relatively brief and easy to learn. These games can give children a taste of winning and losing before they encounter those experiences with peers.
The Signs of Bullying
In the meantime, however, bullying remains a serious problem, and you should be alert for these warning signs that your child is being bullied:
- They are reluctant to go to school.
- Your child is increasingly withdrawn and uninterested in seeing friends.
- Grades and other measures of performance are getting worse.
- Your child complains of not feeling well — symptoms may include headaches, stomachaches, and other pains with no obvious cause.
- You notice physical signs of victimization, such as bruises, bites, and cuts or scrapes.
- Your child gets emails, Facebook or text messages, or other online interactions that are hurtful, insulting, or manipulative.
- They are deliberately excluded from group social activities, like birthday parties.
- Your child reports that other children make threats if they don’t do specific things, like turning over test answers, food, money, or other items.
- You receive reports of bullying from teachers, peers, or parents.
Here are some warning signs that your child is a bully:
- They are getting in trouble at school for aggressive behavior.
- You notice signs of physical violence, such as bruises, scrapes, and so on.
- Your child has a temper and likes to dominate situations, particularly with peers and younger children.
- Your child is cutting classes or avoiding school entirely to hang out with friends.
- You become aware of other high-risk behaviors, like experimenting with cigarettes, alcohol, or sex. These are sometimes correlated with bullying behavior, although not a cause.
- Your child views violence (including hitting or fighting) as a solution to everyday conflicts.
It can be difficult to face either of these situations, but it is crucial to do so. Some data suggest that 1 in 10 children is both a bully and a victim, so you might see signs of both in your child at different points. In addition to helping your child make friends, consider these steps:
- Work with school officials (teachers, the principal) to intervene. Policies at the school level, such as suspensions or detentions for bullying, might help. Changing your child’s schedule may also be an option.
- Work with your child and your child’s ADHD therapist to learn better ways of relating to others.
- Find activities outside of school that your child enjoys. This gives them a sense of competence, anticipation, and another way to meet new friends.
- If your ADHD child is a bully, make sure medication and behavioral interventions are in place to manage symptoms throughout the day. Depression and anxiety are also often linked to bullying, so you might need to ask for an evaluation of other psychiatric conditions.
- If your child is a victim, consider moving to another school, particularly if the bullying continues despite your efforts.
One More Note
Data suggest that ADHD parenting — particularly by mothers — can play a role in helping children with ADHD manage socially. A study of children and mothers in Taiwan showed that children whose mothers were too overprotective actually had more social problems, whereas older children whose mothers were consistently affectionate seemed to have a buffer against being bullied. So, even as you untangle problems with bullying and work to help your child make and keep friends, try to do so with calm reassurance and affection.