Bullying and The ADHD Child

Steven Richfield

Some children are at greater risk of being bullied because of their ADHD. An impulsive moment — an inappropriate remark blurted out for the entire class to hear — can attract the attention of a bully. An impulsive retort  — the ADHD student’s reaction to a bully’s provocation — may escalate the situation.

It is heartbreaking to learn that your ADD/ADHD child has become the victim of a bully. But what can you really do about it?

For starters, be clear with yourself that no child should have to spend a day of school feeling afraid, ashamed, or embarrassed. There are ways you can help protect your child against bullying. This is a place where a parent can make a difference.

If you suspect that your child is the target of bullying, do a little detective work and identify where you believe your child’s behavior – unintentional though it may be – is contributing to his/her challenges. Ask his/her teachers whether difficulty with social skills may be contributing to any difficulties s/he may be having. What else are they seeing?

Sometimes, children with ADHD believe they bring bullying on themselves, and that there is nothing they — or their parents — can do about it. Even if your child feels safe confiding in you and his/her teachers, s/he may still hesitate to do so.

ADHD kids have an “out of sight, out of mind” approach to problem-solving, so it may help to gently question your child about the social scene at school. Casually ask him/her who s/he is friendly with — and who s/he’s not — and if s/he’s happy with her social life at school. Your child may not even be aware that she is being targeted until you ask questions that reveal it.

If you discover that your child is being bullied, start a conversation about how bullies work. De-mystify it. Help your child understand that s/he is not at fault for another child’s poor decisions.

Then, help your child reduce his/her risk of being bullied. S/he needs to understand what made him/her a target in the first place. ADHD can inhibit a child’s understanding of social cues, so there’s a good chance s/he doesn’t even realize that classmates may find his/her actions annoying or inappropriate.

Without excusing the bully’s behavior, identify some of your child’s actions—talking too much, clowning around at inopportune times, blurting out ill-chosen remarks — that might draw negative attention.

Explain that s/he can avoid problems with “low profile” behavior, such as using a quieter voice, keeping his/her comments brief, and staying attuned to whether others are interested in what s/he has to say. Teach him/her the importance of maintaining a balance between observing and talking, and provide a signal when s/he’s talking too much. Jot down these strategies on an index card s/he can keep in a backpack and review on the way to school.

If your child is being bullied at school, alert the teacher and school principal, providing as much detail as possible, as well as the names of any witnesses. If you believe your child’s ADHD is related to the incident, make sure those in charge understand that. Request that your child not be questioned in the presence of the bully, as this can be intimidating.

Ask the principal to call the bully’s parents, and be prepared to follow-up with a call of your own. Let the parents know that you are calling as a gesture of good will, since you would want to be similarly informed if they were complaining to the school about your child. Parents of bullies are in the best position to stop bullying behavior, but only if we stand up and let them know about it.

And be prepared – the reverse can also be true.

Sometimes, ADHD’s impulsivity can lead to bullying behaviors. Try not to be surprised if another parent accuses your child of perpetrating bullying behaviors. An ADHD child sees one side of the story, but may be unaware of how his/her own provocative behavior has influenced the situation.

There can be a thin line between playful banter and mean-spirited comments/actions. Your child’s intention may be playful, but it is perceived as deliberate and hurtful by another child. Similarly, the other child may claim they are attempting to be harmless and funny, but your child’s reactions make it difficult to experience it that way.

Mis-communication is complicated for children to understand, and it can escalate. It’s vital that you keep an open mind when speaking to another child’s parents, as well as school personnel.

As a parent, you can guide your child toward social and emotional success by paying attention and getting involved when it seems important. Besides, open communication is another great skill to model for your children.

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