The Bully Cycle and ADHD
Joan Teach, PhD
BULLYING HAS BECOME A
CRISIS in this country and across the world. It is
listed as the number one cause of school absenteeism in the United
States, and is closely linked to teen depression and suicide. In a
Harvard study of high school students, ninety-six percent reported
having been bullied at least once in their lives, eighty-five percent
reported witnessing bullying, and forty-six percent indicated that they
refused to go to extracurricular activities because the bullies are
there. Sadly, two percent of their classmates committed suicide after
Other studies report that 282,000 students are physically attacked in
our secondary schools each month. It is a sad reflection to learn that
at least one event of bullying occurs every seven minutes. It is
appalling to note that adults intervene in only four percent of these
cases. Peers help eleven percent of the time, leaving eighty-five
percent of the victims on their own with no assistance.
We know that children and adolescents with ADHD are often targeted by
bullies and may later turn around and become the bully. Children play
many roles in the bullying cycle. Sorting out each role can be
difficult, as many of the bullying episodes are carefully carried out
behind your back and out of the sight of any adult. What interventions
can change this vicious cycle?
Bullying is a form of aggressive behavior that is intentional,
hurtful or threatening, and persistent. This aggression can be physical
or psychological, and it is repeated. There is an imbalance of strength,
allowing one individual power and dominance over the other.
Where is the line between friendly teasing and bullying? The bully
intends to harm, intends to create fear, and intends to keep repeating
the behavior. He or she is delighted with the power of intimidating
another lesser-powered youngster. The key words here are intends harm
and delights in control by power.
When the situation is one that involves teasing, both youngsters come to
the situation with the same power or sense of ability. They banter about
an issue and laugh at the outcome.
When the abuse becomes willful, the situation changes into bullying.
Bullying is unfair and one-sided. It leaves the victim feeling hurt,
frightened, threatened, left out on purpose. There is a line between
rough play and bullying when the one with the power sets out to hurt the
other. It is a power play. Hitting, teasing, taunting, spreading rumors,
gossiping, stealing, excluding, and intending to harm are all means of
exercising power. When the activity is repeated and the thrill of the
power is accelerated, the attacker is a bully on a quest.
Bullies seldom own up to their behavior. They make excuses to adults for
what happened. They play innocent, insisting that it was an accident.
They explain that they had no idea that the victim wasn’t having
fun, or felt embarrassed, intimated, or hurt.
Bullies target their victims. They want power, so they look for and
target students who are smaller, younger, or less adept. They seek out
those who exude a lack of self-confidence. The shy child, the one with
slowed speech, someone who walks awkwardly, wears glasses, keeps to
himself or herself—all these children unfortunately become
Students with ADHD are often targeted due to their acting-out behaviors.
Sometimes they are cultivated as a friend and then attacked. Their
impulsivity is seen as vulnerability; the bully taunts until the child
with ADHD retaliates, and then the bully retreats so the child with ADHD
is caught in the act and takes the brunt of punishment. After frequent
attacks, the child with ADHD often turns and becomes the bully, reveling
in the power of finally being in control. The cycle is vicious and needs
to be diffused and understood.
Who is the bully?
Many people associate the bully with a ruffian from the
wrong side of the tracks, a child from a poor family who has a history
of violent behavior. This may be true, but not always. It is true that
boys tend to be more physical, obvious, and direct in their tactics.
Girls on the other hand tend to be more verbal and secretive, and enlist
others to help do their dirty work.
Bullies come from all walks of life. Some are the most popular leaders
of the schools. Some are those who are aggressive and want more. Some
are driven by impulsive behavior and find ways to gain recognition,
although through the wrong means.
Children with ADHD are recorded as being four times more prone to bully.
We must examine each case, however, to determine how the bully process
emerged. We are not making excuses, just trying to see the process of
this behavioral development. Those with learning differences are more
likely to be both the victim and the bully as they try to defend
themselves and retaliate. Thirty percent of children with learning
differences find they are victims of peer rejection, and therefore are
Bullying behavior frequently emerges from victims who have had enough.
The child who is being picked begins to have violent feelings.
Retaliation at all cost becomes his or her new mantra. Witnessing
physical abuse at home or being abused leads to lashing out at others.
The power gained by bullying creates a rush that develops into a need
for more power.
The National Crime Prevention Council reports that more
than forty-two percent of teens with Internet access say they have been
bullied online. Twenty-one percent reported receiving messages that were
threatening. Yes, messaging is a way of life, but fifty-eight percent of
teens admit to sending mean and threatening responses to one another. Of
course, the “don’t-tell-an-adult” rule is alive and
well. So, parents and teachers, you are purposely kept out of the
Our ability to communicate instantly and respond in seconds makes the
instant-messaging world a ripe field for attack, smear, and harassment.
Unfortunately, anything in print is taken as gospel truth, so rumors can
become rampant. Many times the cyberbullying victim is the last to know
the ugliness written about him or her.
Attacks through technology come in two guises—direct attacks and
attack by proxy. Direct is as it sounds, a frontal-attack text
harassment, perhaps created through a blog or website. It is easy to
slander by sending pictures, broadcasting internet polls or surveys,
creating malicious codes, porn, impersonation. Intimidation by proxy
involves getting someone else to do your dirty work. This includes, but
is not limited to, passing slander between cyber buddies for an
For example, a bully arranges a group attack by sending a widespread
message to harass a student at lunch by ignoring her, bumping into her,
and spilling food on her. This message is sent to many students and
results in an unexpected, underhanded unstoppable catastrophe. Nowadays,
if they see students ganging up on someone, teachers or other adults
soon suspect cyberbullying.
Cyber messages may be just rude or vicious and are often written without
truth. Passwords can be hacked, leaving the bully an open field to
impersonate their victim. The reader has no idea the message was a fraud
and the perpetrator cannot be tracked. There is no limit to the damage a
true cyber bully can produce.
What are the consequences of bullying?
Victims of bullying are at risk for social, emotional, and
psychiatric problems that may persist into adulthood. They tend to
internalize their problems and are faced with bouts of depression. They
feel insecure, cry easily, and are anxious and withdrawn, as well as
feeling weak and submissive. Being unhappy leads to withdrawing from
friends. Victims stop participating in extracurricular activities and
feel unsafe in school. Often their grades drop, creating another issue
that compounds their problem.
The bully loses his sense of life’s balance and is often
disruptive, hyperactive, aggressive, and depressed. Needing the feel of
power she develops social anxiety, has difficulty concentrating, is
highly impulsive, and becomes more distracted, inattentive, hyperactive,
and socially maladjusted.
Both the victim and the bully experience an emotional interference and
often have symptoms of reading and writing problems. If a learning
difference exists, these symptoms are compounded. These students often
experience elevated anxiety and have a greater risk of dropping out of
school. The stigma of the bully cycle increases the incidence of drug
and alcohol abuse. Adolescents displaying these behaviors are four times
more likely to be convicted of a crime by age twenty-four. There is no
winner in bullying.
Why victims don’t just stand up for
Remember, the bullying cycle is a situation of power. Victims want to
please. They frequently believe that what has happened to them is really
their fault. They have been told to behave, and try to. Their parents
and their schools forbid fighting, and they try not to.
If the victim does fight back, the bully is savvy enough to back away,
leaving the victim to take the blame for the altercation. The victim is
told to ignore the bully, but the bully knows from the look of fright in
the victim’s eyes that he or she has won. The more scared the
expression, the stronger the taunt, leading to greater bully power.
Often the abuse accelerates to a level of danger. The victim’s
safety is in jeopardy and there is the possibility of a tragic
How does one stand up to a bully?
We’ve already determined that running from the bully is not
the answer. Changing schools is not the answer. Schools must be safe
environments where bullying ceases. A different school may only shift
the child’s vulnerability to the next bully. Instead, let’s
give our children survivor tools. But how?
Change the victim mindset. First of all, the
vulnerable child needs to get over the idea that he or she should be a
victim. He or she did not create this abuse, and it is not his or her
fault. Sensitive children feel that they caused the abuse and that no
one can come to save them and make it right. Some become so frustrated
that they react just as the bully expected. This makes them doubly
vulnerable. Victims are not to suffer in silence and be pounded into
submission. And they must not feel they can ignore the taunts and make
the bully go away! That gives the bully the message that he or she has
Teach children to have an “I can and I
will” attitude. One of the best preventive interventions
is body language. Show children how to create an assertive stance, and
help them practice. Teachers can also make this into a classroom
activity. Pride in self will support a child for a lifetime. Rehearse
until the child can produce a look of confidence, by learning to:
• look the
bully directly in the eyes.
• hold his or
her head high.
eye contact and speak clearly.
• make sure
of his or her movements.
• make his or
her movements crisp and sure.
Parents and teachers can talk to children about the importance of
personal hygiene and looking well put-together. Children and adolescents
may be at the sloppy age and careless about their appearance, but
encourage them that a change in appearance may be a first line of
defense against being attacked.
Respond with appropriate assertive comeback lines in
vulnerable situations. Help children learn to use such
statements wisely, so they do not backfire. (See the sidebar.)
Some children with ADHD are not readily aware of social situations and
need direct instructions for those times when they just don’t get
what is happening. They need to learn that their whole presence is their
best defense. Teach them to:
• remain cool
at all cost.
the temptation to throw in the next barb and foil with the next
• use a
comeback line instead, one that is brief and to the point, giving the
message that the bully did not get to them.
• look the
bully in the eye.
• have a
poker face that shows no anger. Having hurt or anger on your face makes
you vulnerable. Practice making a blank face in front of a mirror, a
poker face that does not reveal any of your feelings.
Put STOP into action. Once children have
developed these vital assertiveness skills, teach them to use the STOP
method to put their skills into action.
by looking your attacker Straight into his or her eyes.
Hold your head high and stand with confidence, even if you are
• Next, be sure no emotion
shows on your Totally poker face. Remember showing
emotions makes you vulnerable.
• With a
strong voice state your Opinion with your comeback
that you have shown your strength, Pretend the bully
does not exist. Totally ignore her.
See the sidebar for tips to help you remember the STOP method of
What about the
We’ve talked about the bully and the victim, but we have
ignored the other players in this saga, the witnesses.
Seldom does a bullying event occur without witnesses. The bully needs
someone to see how powerful she is and to verify her existence. She
wants a following, to be a hero, so someone must see and tell. However,
these witnesses, or bystanders, come in many “flavors”:
• First there
is the vanilla bystander. This youngster watches and sees, but
does nothing. He is just there.
• Then there
is the strawberry witness who continues the harassment,
encouraging and cheering on the taunting.
• Next is the
neapolitan, who takes on the flavor of the most popular. This
bystander is afraid of making his own decision or taking a stand. He is
unable to be anything but what someone else tells him to be or do.
• Then comes
the blueberry witness. This bystander comes waving a flag for
the victim. She boos the bully and sides with the victim. This show of
force rolls over the bully, diffusing the strength of power that the
bully is fighting for.
Parents, teachers, and other adults need to encourage the role of the
blueberry witness. We need children and adolescents to feel empowered by
befriending the victim. We need to assist them in identifying the roles
of bully, victim, and bystander. We need to give each child a right to
be safe and secure. We need to instruct and encourage children to
support one another. We need to make it acceptable to report bullying as
inappropriate behavior. Developing a safe environment, we need to
encourage the loners to stay on the more traveled paths, to encourage
them to have someone with them, especially the supportive blueberry
variety. Being safe is to be less vulnerable.
Is your child’s school truly
As we know, a lot of bullying happens in or around
school property and involves student-to-student interaction. Many
schools have a no-bullying policy and really want to enforce it. Often
action is impossible, as teachers do not witness the events, students
have difficulty relaying what happened, and many denials and twistings
of facts occur. Schools that make a difference use a preventive
Psychologist Dan Olweus studied the school community and created the
most impressive bullying prevention program to date, in which changing
bystander behavior is the key. (See the article in the December 2009
Attention, and visit the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program website.)
Students discuss and define bullying. They are encouraged to make a
commitment to speak up when they witness a bullying event and to
befriend and stand up for the victim. They are helped to express their
feelings and to speak openly and candidly through role-play and
interactive activities. When the whole community works together, a
difference can be made.
Assess the program that is in place in the school your child attends, or
if you’re a teacher, the school where you teach. What
interventions have been put into action? What more can you do?
Remember, there is a positive message for us all:
• The student
who bullies and who receives help can become aware of his or her
behavior and change his or her focus on life. Of course, the earlier the
intervention begins, the better.
• The student
who is bullied can be empowered to assert himself or herself, move
beyond the attacker, and heal.
witnesses can learn to become empowered to care and stand up against
We can change the bullying cycle if we all work together.
SAMPLE COMEBACK LINES
are not return insults, but can help increase the vulnerable
child’s confidence—which discourages the bully. Encourage
children to think carefully as to when these comeback lines may be
appropriate, and to practice them with an adult before using them.
Oh, get a life.
How does it feel to be this mean?
Are you talking to me?
You’re wasting your breath.
If you say so, okay.
I hear you, but I don’t care.
Are you finished?
Are you satisfied?
I hope your nasty attitude makes you
I couldn't care less.
Keep talking. I’m not
Congratulations for being the King
Are you bored yet?
You should be making me feel bad, but
you are not worth it.
I should report your behavior, but
you’re not worth it.
Mission accomplished, so move on.
You are really just wasting my
THE STOP METHOD OF BULLYPROOFING
Here is a chart to help you remember the STOP
Straight into the
Total poker face
Pretend he is not
FOR MORE INFO
Do you know the signs your child is being bullied? Or that your
child may be bullying others? Click here for more information
resources and programs.
An educational consultant based in the Atlanta area, Joan Teach,
PhD, is an adjunct professor at Kennesaw State University and president
of the Learning Disabilities Association of Georgia. She served as
director of the Lullwater School from 1979 to 2006. Teach initiated one
of the first CHADD groups in her state and later served on CHADD’s
national board of directors. With a passion for designing games and
simulations as unique learning interventions, she has developed many
strategies to assist children and adults with ADHD in understanding
their own learning styles. Read her CHADD blog, “ADHD and School
Success,” at adhdteacher.wordpress.com.
This article originally appeared in the December 2010 issue of
magazine. Copyright © 2010 by Children and
Adults with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD). All rights