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What you need to know about bullying and ADHD

We talked with Dr. Michele Borba about the basics of bullying.  This post we explore how ADHD plays into bullying and what to do about it.

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. And children who are different – 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.

Off the top of my head, here are a few of the issues that students with ADHD face:

  • Poor impulse control:  The person with ADHD often gets set off too fast.  They aren’t able to put on their emotional brake system on and have an opportunity to think before reacting.
  • Slower to develop 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 by their actions.
  • Voice tone: I’ve observed that children with ADHD often speak too loudly or too quickly and 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.
  • Anger management:  Part of the challenges of ADHD is it is harder to regulate one’s emotions and identify you are getting out of control.  An important quality of healthy relationships needs to stop and slow down when you are upset.  People with ADHD often speak before they think when they are angry. This leads to saying hurtful things that can set up a bullying cycle.
  • Lacking social skills: Have you noticed interrupting is a symptom of many people with ADHD?  Well-liked children are good listeners; they smile and encourage others. Some ADHD kids also have autism spectrum or depression because of this they may appear to be angry or unfriendly.
  • Poor problem solving abilities:  Research is emerging that reveals people with ADHD have delayed development in their executive functions – including problem solving skills. There is a high correlation between poor problem solving skills and a child being a bully or being bullied.

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, but parents and teachers often make the mistake of trying to tell kids with ADHD what they need to do.  This approach won’t work.

  1. You need to SHOW, not tell, any new skill: just like in sports.  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 mastered it.
  2. Identify the skills your child needs. Your child will need a replacer skill “to take the place of the behavior that you want to replace. Figure out where to being by watching your child in a social situation to observe what type of behavior is getting child in trouble, causing him to rebuff the other kid, or act as if he isn’t coping.
  3. Don’t teach too many skills at once.  Start with one small skill.  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. Each skill takes a long time to learn and internalize it. Don’t have you child try too many different strategies at once. Instead figure out what skill the child needs, teach it, and have him get a ton of time to practice it, build confidence and integrate it into her second nature.
  4. Give kids an opportunity to practice, practice, practice any new behavior you want them to learn. 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.
  5. Start now! The earlier you start teaching the better. Habits start early and become entrenched; entrenched habits are harder to break.
  6. Don’t try to do it 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.
  7. Make sure your child is surrounded by caring supportive people. Bullying is a relational problem– who you hang out with makes a huge difference on whether you are involved with bullying. Become friends with your child’s friends, visit the school occasionally, and keep your eyes open.

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 it, but instead where and when it is happening. Here are some questions to ask your child:

  1. Where is it happening?
  2. Who are you with? Are they giving support?
  3. Did you tell?
  4. Work with staff to work in what can we do to change the situation.

Keep in mind, your child may not be able to give you these answers, so don’t press. He honestly may not know. You’ll need to find an adult who sees your child in a different setting – such as a school where the bullying may be happening – and give you the perspective you need.

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

Borba: There are tons of discrete social skills we all use.  Here are a few places to start to learn more:

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.

Have you been bullied?  Do you feel having ADHD has affected your school yard social life positively or negatively? Let us know in the comments.

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