Bullying Is the Norm. So Is an Inadequate Response.
Bullying plagues a majority of neurodivergent students at school, on social media, and/or on the bus. When asked about the school’s response to incidents of bullying, 72% of ADDitude readers surveyed said they were dissatisfied and only 12% said the bullies faced any punishment.
Despite nationwide anti-bullying campaigns, zero-tolerance school policies, and calls for kindness, bullying remains a serious public health issue. Youth today continue to fall victim to negative verbal and physical confrontations. In a recent ADDitude survey on youth mental health, a staggering 61% of respondents said their child had been bullied; of those respondents, 72% were dissatisfied with the school’s response to incidents on campus, on a school bus, or online.
Inadequate School Response
Children with ADHD are nearly twice as likely to be bullied as their neurotypical peers, and that bullying and cyberbullying are most often experienced in middle or high school. 1 Family financial strain, developmental delay or intellectual disability, friendship difficulties, and school-reported problems contribute to the risk of victimization. 2
Of the 701 ADDitude readers who reported bullying of their children, 69% said the bully was a classmate, and 48% said multiple students were involved. Regardless of the perpetrator, a whopping 72% of survey respondents said they were not satisfied with the school’s response.
“My child experienced bullying for years, from preschool through high school, and told teachers and staff, but they never mentioned it to me,” wrote one mother of an 18-year-old with ADHD and anxiety. “It was only when he physically lashed out that most of it stopped, but the damage was done. In middle school he began at-risk behaviors, it was quite apparent that his self-esteem was seriously low, and he chose troubled kids from troubled homes as friends… He continues to struggle with identity, sexual identity, motivation and purpose, to a debilitating level.”
More than 37% of caregivers reported that their child’s school never acknowledged the bullying behavior; 30% said the school issued a verbal warning to the bully; and 29% said the school spoke with their child about being bullied. Only 12% of parents said the school punished the bully or bullies, and only 9.5% said the school provided support services for their child “to help deal with the bullying and its aftermath.” Just 23 respondents said the school put the bullies on a behavior improvement plan.
[Free eBook: Time to Change? Great Schools for ADHD Kids]
“Late in the school year, one of my daughter’s classmates who had been routinely bullying her told her to go kill herself,” said the father of a 10-year-old with ADHD and anxiety in Utah. “We promptly reported it to the school. The principal made it clear that they would address the issue with the student, but it never happened. We relayed this to the district and have yet to hear of any resolution.”
Bullying by Authority Figures
Almost one-third of respondents identified their child’s bully as a “friend.” And a quarter said the bully was a teacher, coach, or staff member. While attention is often placed on peer-to-peer bullying, abuse by authority figures does occur — and bring with it nuanced considerations. David said that his son was repeatedly rejected by teachers and staff at preschool “due to ADHD and language differences.”
“He was told to shut up by teachers and children frequently,” he said. “His behavior worsened, negative patterns were created, and the blame was assigned to him.”
Reports of bullying by teachers and administrators were alarmingly common among parents, many of whom did not learn of the bullying until years later.
[Read: When Adults Bully Children with ADHD]
“Had I known at the time about the staff bullying, there would have been legal consequences,” wrote the parent of a young adult with ADHD and learning differences who was bullied at school. “But as often happens, the person bullied would not tell the parents.”
Melissa said her son was blamed by teachers for behaviors and challenges caused by his ADHD. “The teacher often sent our son out of class and spoke denigratingly about him to the bullies,” she said, echoing a common complaint of ADHD ignorance among educators.
Other respondents attributed adult bullying to a lack of understanding regarding gender identification and expression, auditory processing disorder (APD), and ADHD symptoms such as emotional dysregulation. Though less data exists on bullying by adults at school, previous research suggests that chronic peer victimization during school years leads to lower academic achievement, less confidence in one’s academic abilities, and a greater dislike of school. 3 Resolving this behavior is crucial to a positive learning environment.
“[The school] did a mediation with all of the boys and had my son explain ADHD and why he went to the nurse for meds daily,” said the mother of a 10-year-old boy with ADHD in New Jersey. “They called him ‘retarded’ and said he has ‘mental problems,’ which is why they were called in for bullying my son. So instead of discipline, they wanted to educate the other kids. My son agreed to this. I was not really happy with it.”
Other parents expressed satisfaction with their schools’ efforts to increase ADHD understanding and empathy through communication.
“A group of boys was following my daughter and her friends around each day yelling body-shaming comments at them,” said the mother of an 11-year-old girl bullied at school and over text messages. “A teacher had the girls write letters explaining the impact of the behavior. The boys had to read those letters, and then write apology letters to each girl.”
Why Cyberbullying Interventions are Too Rare
Outside of school, neurodivergent children and teens most commonly encounter bullying in social media apps (32%), on the school bus (30%), and in text messages (27%).
“Bullying has always surrounded my daughter’s lack of age-appropriate social insight and the intensity of her emotional reactivity,” wrote Cindy, whose 18-year-old daughter has faced bullying at school, on social media, and on sports teams. “Once shunned, the bullying begins. Girls begin to exclude her from previous group texts and stop following her on certain apps. She then learns of negative posts about herself from others. She ruminates until her mood totally plunges.”
Leigh said her daughter posted “a mild, short video” on social media and began receiving negative comments. “She started being more self-critical, withdrawn, and afraid to post anything else for fear of being bullied again.”
The anonymity of and lack of adult supervision on social platforms like Snapchat, Instagram, and TikTok sometimes allow bullying to persist. Children and adolescents who experience cyberbullying are at an increased risk for self-harm, and girls are most likely to be both perpetrators and victims. 4 Unfortunately, most young people won’t intervene on behalf of their peers, though they’re more likely to do so anonymously. 4
“I could literally write a book about the lack of needed social-emotional training for all students in our school district as well as teachers and all adults working with students,” Cindy said. “Additionally, parents with neurodiverse and learning challenged kids need parent support and education groups organized by the school district. Parents need this peer-to-peer emotional validation… and the empowerment that comes from a group to help them seek changes in the school system.”
A Complicated Problem
For Sonja, whose 10-year-old daughter was physically harmed by a classmate, it was hard to know exactly what the school should do. The bully had displayed signs of physical aggression for years but attempts to curb his behavior were complicated by his own behavioral disorder.
“[My daughter’s] classmate engages other students in physical conflict,” Sonja wrote. “I know that this child is in therapy for behavior issues, but it’s hard to have him in the same class. He has behaved this way toward my daughter and others since they were one year old, so I know it won’t likely stop anytime soon.”
Bullying can lead to other forms of violence, and physical outbursts may be the result of untreated ADHD, oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), or intermittent explosive disorder (IED).
“I don’t know what else the school can do, but other kids are not always safe around him,” Sonja said. “I know he struggles, too. My child has attempted to be friends with him over the years, but it often ends with her being hurt physically. We are now trying to gently discourage her from additional attempts to befriend him.”
Bullying Prevention Strategies
For Educators and School Staff
All staff must be properly trained on anti-bullying policies and procedures and how to enforce them. The American Psychological Association (APA) and StopBullying.gov (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) recommend the following anti-bullying strategies:
Be vigilant. Bullying generally happens in areas where supervision is limited – playgrounds, crowded hallways, lunchrooms, school buses, etc. Monitor these hot spots.
Respond quickly and consistently to bullying. Always try to stop bullying on the spot, as it can stop bullying behavior over time. Do not ignore the situation and assume that the issue will resolve on its own. Avoid forcing the bully and victim to “work it out” on the spot. Get medical attention or police help if warranted.
Incorporate bullying prevention activities in lessons. Get creative. Students can learn how to respond to bullying, how to report it (including cyberbullying) to teachers and staff, and the role they play in fostering a culture of safety, inclusion, and respect at school.
Conduct school-wide bullying assessments and evaluation prevention efforts. Refine plans as necessary.
Sharon Saline, Psy.D., recommends the following strategies:
Show your child how to properly assert themselves. If bullies see that their initial taunts and insults provoke a reaction, they will continue. Teach your child tactics like interrupting the bully mid-sentence, switching the topic of conversation, etc.
Create a plan that clearly details steps your child should take if they see or experience bullying online or in person.
Come up with an exit strategy for uncomfortable situations. Your child could use the help of true friends, for example, to help them get out of tricky situations.
Build your child’s confidence. A strong self of self will prevent your child from becoming a bully and give them the courage they need to intervene when others are being bullied.
Bullying in Schools and ADHD: Next Steps
- Read: Your Child’s Legal Right to Learn Without Bullying
- Download: Your ADHD Middle School Guide
- Watch: “My Child Is Being Bullied at School!” Strategies for Parents
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View Article Sources
1Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). Fast fact: Preventing bullying. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/youthviolence/bullyingresearch/fastfact.html
2Cuba Bustinza, C., Adams, R. E., Claussen, A. H., Vitucci, D., Danielson, M. L., Holbrook, J. R., Charania, S. N., Yamamoto, K., Nidey, N., & Froehlich, T. E. (2022). Factors Associated With Bullying Victimization and Bullying Perpetration in Children and Adolescents With ADHD: 2016 to 2017 National Survey of Children’s Health. Journal of Attention Disorders. https://doi.org/10.1177/10870547221085502
3Ladd, G. W., Ettekal, I., & Kochenderfer-Ladd, B. (2017). Peer Victimization Trajectories From Kindergarten Through High School: Differential Pathways for Children’s School Engagement and Achievement? Journal of Educational Psychology. https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/edu-edu0000177.pdf
4 11 facts about cyberbullying. (n.d.) DoSomething.org. Retrieved from https://www.dosomething.org/us/facts/11-facts-about-cyber-bullying