Bullying: What Parents and Teachers of
Children with ADHD Need to Know
A chat with Marlene Snyder, PhD
SNYDER, PhD, IS A RESEARCH ASSISTANT PROFESSOR at the
Institute of Family and Neighborhood Life at Clemson University in South
Carolina. She is the national director of development for the Olweus
Bullying Prevention Program and the founding president of the
International Bullying Prevention Association. Snyder has served as a
national and international conference speaker, trainer, and technical
assistance consultant for educational, mental health, child welfare, and
juvenile justice agencies, and parent education organizations. She
consults regularly with a wide variety of professional and community
organizations on a range of topics related to bullying prevention and
intervention. She has also written extensively on the topic of ADHD and
is the author of ADHD & Driving: A Guide for Parents of Teens
with ADHD (Whitefish Consultants, 2001).
How do you get a thirteen-year-old boy with ADHD to tell someone he is
being bullied when he thinks that telling is snitching?
We know that it is more difficult for boys to report
victimization than it is for girls. When they get older, it is also more
likely that boys will hesitate to tell anyone that they are being
bullied. This is a very common problem.
It is important
for parents to listen to the child and to let them know that "snitching"
is not the same as "reporting." They need to know the difference between
tattling or snitching as "telling-on" someone for doing something to get
that person in trouble. Telling or reporting is to help resolve an issue
they can't take care of by themselves. If a child is concerned about his
own safety—or the safety of another child—it is not
snitching. Schools are beginning to teach this to children in their
bullying prevention programming.
The worst things a parent can do when a child comes to you to
tell you about being bullied are to ignore him, to tell him to stop
tattling, to ask What did you do to bring it on, or to make
a comment that because of the way he acts you are not surprised that
other kids are picking on him.
No child should
be abused by his or her peers. Please continue to encourage your child
to talk to you about this problem. You can work it out together.
My son is
being bullied at school and in our neighborhood. He is being called
names such as fat and
told that no one likes him. He has been diagnosed with ADHD and is much
larger than the kids in his age group. What is the best way to tell him
to stick up for himself that will bring him confidence and also stop the
other child from bullying him? He came home crying the other day and it
is so hard to see him not stick up for himself.
First of all, it
is important for him to understand that what the other kids are doing to
him and saying about him isn't right. He has a right to be around other
children at school and in his neighborhood without this kind of
intimidation and humiliation.
We often find
that children who are afraid to stand up for themselves can get a lot of
good information from attending Taekwondo lessons or working with
someone who can help with self-esteem. Many times, these children don't
stand up tall and don't use eye contact—signaling that if they are
bullied they might not stand up for themselves.
important to coach their children and to offer encouragement. They can
be encouraged to find things that they are good at, be involved with
other children, and so forth.
But how do we
know when a child is being bullied? I'm already hypersensitive due to
all the issues that a parent with ADHD already has with the school. What
are the signs?
The signs are different for different aged
kids. Be aware of any changes in characteristic behaviors. Is your child
appearing "quiet"? Are there unexplained scratches or bruises? Are they
missing items they have taken to school, or are their possessions being
damaged at school? There may not be any children coming to your home or
making calls to talk with your child. Does your child cry easily or
become irritated when you ask about "friends" at school?
Bullying is not just a conflict—the
power imbalance part of bullying is important here. Power imbalances can
be physical, but they can also be emotional imbalances. Some kids react
with crying or yelling, handing the child who bullied more power. Some
kids are more verbal and can be using that verbal power to harm others
(gossip, name calling, taunting). Some kids have more things or more
economic resources, giving them more power with their peers. There is
also power in numbers; more popular children can manipulate several
other children to bully another child.
I must remind you here that if your child
feels bullied, you need to listen carefully. Ask questions. Too many
times parents dismiss the child before they know what is really going
What is bullying?
"It is important for people to have a
definition of ‘bullying’ behavior," says Marlene Snyder,
PhD. "Bullying is when someone repeatedly and intentionally says or does
mean or hurtful things to another person who has a hard time defending
himself or herself. It is important to understand that bullying is
not just a conflict or a misunderstanding
between two children."
Bullying, Snyder says, is
characterized by three key components:
Bullying is a form of
intentional aggression—the child who is bullied is picked out for
some reason—it is not accidental mistreatment.
Bullying behavior is often repeated.
Adults are not always aware of patterns until a serious event occurs.
But DO NOT WAIT for a pattern to develop before responding. Address all
negative behavior immediately!
Unlike other forms of aggression, there
is an imbalance of power or strength between the child who is bullying
and the child who is being bullied. The imbalance can be physical
(someone is bigger or stronger), but often is emotional or verbal and
can be quite subtle.
A child who is being bullied is likely to have a difficult time
defending himself or herself physically, verbally, emotionally. We must
be clear—bullying is a form of victimization (or peer abuse) and
shares some characteristics (intentional, repetitive, power imbalance)
with other forms of victimization: domestic violence and child
How do you decide which is the best way to
defend against the bully? Ignore it if possible? Use a smart comeback?
What advice would you give a ten-year-old boy?
This is a difficult question. It is never good
advice just to "ignore" it. Remember that bullying is victimization.
Telling a child to ignore constant bullying is as effective as telling
the victim of a domestic violence situation, "Just ignore it." We are
well meaning when we give that advice, but it really isn't helpful to
the child who is being harmed.
If your child has some friends or supporters,
advise him to always stay with that group. Children who bully often look
for loners—people who don't have many friends who will step in to
Telling a child who is bullying to "stop it"
may or may not work. Sometimes we see children who say that wind up
being harmed worse.
If your child is able to make a comeback,
sometimes that works, but most children are so devastated by what has
just happened that they can't think of what to do in the moment.
Most importantly, he should remove himself
from the situation, and not let the other kids see him get
overemotional. For children with ADHD, this is very difficult. They will
often try to fight back, and most times they are ineffective and it
makes matters worse.
The most important thing is that they should
tell a trusted adult at school what is happening. If the person they
talked to isn't helping, then they need to keep telling other adults
until they find someone who will help.
What is the best way to approach your
child’s principal or teacher if you believe your child is being
It is very difficult for parents to see what
is happening to their child when they are being bullied. Often parents
become very emotional when recounting what has been happening and the
impact bullying has had on their child.
First of all, call the principal and ask for a
meeting. It is really good if you have something in writing that helps
you to remember all the things you want to say. This can be a very
emotional meeting, so try to have your feelings under control. You can
help yourself a lot by making this a meeting of stating the facts.
Thank the principal for meeting with you and
then start down your list. Who has been harming your child? Who was
standing around watching the events? What happened? What day did it
happen? Has it happened before? Was it the same child who was harming
your child, or is it a group of children who are causing the distress in
Most states have anti-bullying laws. Look
yours up and determine what your school should be doing to protect your
child. Ask that the bullying be brought to an end and that you be
informed of any problems that are brought to their attention. Your child
has a right to attend school without being abused by their peers.
When a situation presents itself where there is a clear target and
known bully(ies) in a school setting, what should the supervisory system
then look like? How can schools effectively keep a student safe in a
situation when greater supervision is needed without making the victim's
school experience completely different?
Schools can use a student survey to find out
the hot spots for bullying behavior in that school. Supervision can be
reassigned to the places and the times that bullying is most likely to
happen. Many schools also have a good deal of data from working with
discipline issues. They know where in the school there are likely to be
problems, what hours (usually it is during passing time in the halls),
or in recess, gym class, or at lunch). There are many ways to increase
supervision without costing additional money for additional staff.
My thirteen-year-old son curls up when he's
intimidated, which just seems to invite bullying. Any practical advice
on helping him physically position himself in a manner that helps him
appear confident instead of looking like a victim or target?
This reaction is not uncommon; it is a
protective position. He will need some coaching such as helping him to
stand up straight and tall and trying to make himself look bigger.
Standing with feet apart so he won't be easily tipped over can help too.
The PE teacher at school would be a good place to get some one-on-one
coaching and tips. Getting them into a martial arts class, where they
can learn to be more confident with their own body and how to defend
from physical or verbal threats really helps kids who are constantly
There are good martial arts schools and some
that teach more aggression than may be necessary. Be sure to pick a
school that teaches the use of physical force against others ONLY when
necessary. Be comfortable that they are teaching good values in the
What if someone who was previously a friend
to your child begins to bully him or her? What is the best approach for
a parent to take? Talk with the parents of the other kid? Talk to the
other kid directly? Or try to give my child strategies for dealing with
the bullying 'friend'?
Dealing with this is especially hard for both
the child and the parent. As kids get older, friendships shift, and
sometimes our children are left behind. It is important to talk about
how friendships change and talk about what might have happened in your
own friendship experiences.
It is possible to have more than one good
friend, and it can help to explain this to your child. Look for
opportunities for your child to establish other friends.
It seems intuitive that parents want to talk
to other parents about their child's friendships, but rarely does this
work out the way parents want it to. Often the conversations become
either defensive or emotional and can wind up making things worse for
Your child should be encouraged to report what
is happening to a teacher at school so that they are aware. It is
heartbreaking to watch a child in this situation. Keep the communication
The best advice I can give is to help your
child find other friends. Perhaps finding different groups of kids to
play with will help.
My nine-year-old son who has been diagnosed
with ADHD consistently is the target of bullying. He is very outgoing
and has friends,but I think when he is nervous or excited he acts
silly, which draws negative attention. Coaching him on this
has not seemed to help. On top of this we are new to our neighborhood.
Do you have any advice for helping him in social situations?
I have to catch my breath on this one. We lived through the
same kind of situations, and our son is now thirty-five. First of all,
know that they can survive and thrive, but it is going to be up to you
to help keep hope alive.
Immaturity is a trait that children who bully will target.
Groups want to look older rather than younger! Dr. Russell Barkley has
presented information at conferences indicating that in children with
ADHD, the ability to control impulsive behaviors lags by approximately
one-third the chronological age. For example, your nine-year-old may act
more like a six-year-old, a fifteen-year-old more like a ten-year-old
and so on.
son may not be able to develop close friendships with kids in the
neighborhood, but he can find friends in other places. Remember, it
doesn't matter how many friends he has, but he needs to have at least
Helping him to
get into things he likes to do is important. Find something he is good
at. For our son, it was bowling. He wasn't complained about like when he
messed up a team sport, for example. When he played baseball it was a
nightmare when he was left fielder—but he excelled when they let
him catch. Parents just have to keep finding opportunities for them to
find what they are good at. Many times friends are younger children. As
long as they feel that they have someone to talk with and someone who
will do things with them, they will be okay.
A lot of your
suggestions on how to deal with bullies seem to be targeted to an
elementary or middle school child. Are there different tactics that high
school students should take?
You know, until
a year ago, researchers believed that bullying slacked off in high
school. We have surveyed over half a million US kids who tell us that
for girls, bullying is highest in around the eighth grade then gradually
gets better through the twelfth grade. However, what we learned for boys
is that bullying is quite high at the ninth grade and continues to be
about the same in grades ten through eleven. Then, the twelfth-grade
boys have the highest incidence of bullying others.
We are training
high schools. They have to be particularly careful not to
confuse bullying with sexual harassment, disability harassment, and with
civil rights violations (bullying because of race, gender, religion, or
We also make
high school students aware that bullying doesn't stop in high school;
they may face this behavior in the workplace as well.
Again, the best
strategy for high schoolers who are being harmed is to let adults in the
system know what is going on. That is easier said than done. Our
research also tells us that high school students are the most likely to
suffer bullying without telling anyone—not parents,
siblings, or friends.
particularly important for parents to be "tuned in" to their
child—being very aware of the signs of depression—which are
eight times higher in kids who are being bullied than in those who are
not. As always, an informed parent is in the best position to help their
child with ADHD. I certainly hope this helps you.
There are legal
protections for all kids who are being harmed. You need to know your
state laws against bullying, cyberbullying, and hazing; see the map on
the Olweus website, olweus.org.
constructive things can a parent of a shy fourteen-year-old boy do to
help him make true friends in a big new public high school? He
definitely doesn't want mom or dad "orchestrating" any interactions with
other kids. Just wait and friends will come or what?
This is really a
big issue. Many times children are lost in big schools. It will be
important that he have some adult at the school that he can go to.
Perhaps meet the counselor ahead of time.
keeping friends for any child with ADHD has always seemed to be more
difficult than for other kids. It will be important to have some
acquaintances before he starts school. Can you get him involved in some
activities or interest groups before going? It will be important for you
to listen to what he is dealing with and what he needs.
Please know that
bullying problems are very difficult. Read all you can so that you can
be prepared to help your child. It is rough, but schools can do a great
deal to help you. Keep talking with them and don't forget it is your
child's right to get an education without having to face bullying from
their peers. We do know what to do to take care of bullying problems in
schools. That is the good news!
a parent address it when their child is being excluded from groups?
The child might be "friends" with another kid, but when that other kid
is in a group of peers, they all exclude the child from
Exclusion is a particularly painful form of
bullying for a child. You are right, "friends" can experience a good
deal of peer pressure and fall into the group's behavior. When this
happens constantly at school, I'd encourage you to visit with the
principal and explain what is happening. Talk calmly, stating facts of
what has happened and the impact that it is having on your child.
When you know that there is a particular
event—like a birthday party—that your child is not invited
to, remind the child that there are others who aren't invited as well,
and perhaps plan your own activity that will keep the child busy during
the time of the event that he or she was not invited to.
Remember that these kinds of exclusions are
painful for parents, too. Try to avoid talking badly of the other kids
and their parents in front of your child. That isn't going to help
When our children are being harmed by others,
it is extremely frustrating and painful for parents. In this situation,
however, we have to keep our focus on helping our child. Know that there
are others who are experiencing the same kinds of things. Your CHADD
group is a wonderful place to connect with other parents who may have
strategies that they can share that will help you and your child.
Resources for Parents and Teachers
Find additional resources on bullying prevention
in both English and Spanish at olweus.org,
including an interactive map with information on state laws against
bullying. Look in the portal for parents at the top of the homepage.
There are lots of good tip sheets and fact sheets there that parents may
choose to share with teachers. There is also a teacher portal and one
for school administrators.
Contact Marlene Snyder directly at email@example.com.
There is also a great website for kids about bullying
the website of the PACER Center.
Read Barbara Colorosso, The Bully,
the Bullied, and the Bystander (William Morrow Paperbacks,
See previous Attention articles on this
subject, especially The
Bully Cycle and ADHD by Joan Teach (December
This Ask the Expert column is adapted from an
online chat produced by the National Resource Center on ADHD: A Program
of CHADD. The NRC’s Ask the Expert chats are supported by
Cooperative Agreement 5U38DD000335 from CDC. Its contents are solely the
responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the
official view of CDC.
This article originally appeared in the June 2012 issue of
Attention magazine. Copyright © 2012 by Children and
Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD). All rights
reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without written
permission from CHADD.