Friends at School

How to Demobilize a Bully in 5 Steps

Children and teens with ADHD are often targeted by bullies who notice their impulsivity, clumsiness, or awkward social skills. Here, teach your child how to deal with a bully and become an upstander for other neurodivergent kids.

How to stop bullying, upstander, stop bullying

Q: “My daughter has ADHD and learning differences. She says she gets teased at school, but how can I tell if this is downright bullying?”

How to Stop Bullying at School

Sadly, many neurodivergent kids experience bullying, teasing, and/or taunting. Despite anti-bullying policies in schools and national efforts to raise awareness, kids with ADHD will likely find themselves as victims and/or aggressors at some point.

Yes, aggressors. Children and teens with ADHD may not realize when they’ve crossed the line from gentle ribbing into full-on bullying. Teasing is:

  • often done with humor
  • is reciprocal
  • doesn’t affect self-esteem
  • will stop when it is no longer fun

Taunting, on the other hand, involves ill will and continues or even escalates after the recipient is hurt or asks for the taunting to stop. Taunting is a form of bullying, and it is rampant in the upper elementary school grades, middle school, and early high school years.

Bullies often target individuals they perceive to be weak, vulnerable, and unable to defend themselves. It is repetitive, purposeful, and meant to cause harm or fear through the threat of further hostility. Bullying can be physical (hurting people), or it can be done through relational aggression (starting rumors, spreading gossip, and getting people to “gang up” on others).

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Often, the roles of bully and victim are fluid. Kids who feel insecure or different from others are more likely to be aggressors at one time and then victims at another. Children and teens with ADHD may become targets for bullies due to impulsiveness, clumsiness, and greater challenges navigating awkward conversations and reading body language. They also may not realize when they are in danger of being targeted or attacked.

Sometimes the bullied becomes a bully. The same impulsivity and social challenges that put kids with ADHD at risk for bullying may also lead them to take out their frustrations on others.

A bully’s motivations may include the following:

  • A desire to fit in with or be accepted by “cool” or “popular” kids
  • Peer pressure
  • A defense mechanism: “If I bully others, then others won’t bully me”
  • To increase social status: “I feel stronger/smarter/better when I put others down”

How to Deal with A Bully: 5 Steps

To teach kids to respond effectively to bullying, support them with these interventions:

  1. Encourage your child to speak up in non-provocative ways to assert strength. Bullies will do a few practice taunts to test someone, create drama, and stir things up. If their insults provoke a reaction, they will continue. Your child can shut this down by standing up and saying: “What did you say to me?” or “What did you mean by that?” Or your child can interrupt the bully mid-sentence, say his name, and change the conversation. Try role-playing with your child to practice this.
  2. Create an exit strategy. Discuss techniques and phrases to use to extricate your child from an uncomfortable situation. Explore ways for your child or teen to engage the assistance of their true friends in socially tricky situations.
  3. Remind your child that he is not alone. Point out his true friends and encourage time spent together. For younger children, facilitate these meetups; for older ones, ask if they’d like to invite a friend over. Ask the school for help in fostering positive connections through project collaborations with like-minded individuals. Make sure that teachers are aware of the social dynamics your child is facing.
  4. Help your child build self-awareness about statements, actions, or facial expressions that might be misinterpreted as hostile. Try saying: “Hey, are you aware of the volume of your voice right now? Can you bring it down a notch?” Seek out feedback from teachers about possible off-putting behaviors or habits that they notice.
  5. Create a safety plan that details what to say or do to stop bullying when it occurs in person or online: whom to talk to (a friend or adult), where to go at school (the office of the nurse or counselor), and how to minimize reacting.

Nurture self-confidence in your child or teen by identifying her interests and capabilities, developing skills and pride in these areas, acknowledging her efforts as well as her accomplishments, and staying compassionate and steady in your relationship.

[Symptom Test: Does My Child Have ADHD?]

How to Become An Upstander

Encourage your child to recognize situations in which they are bystanders. Ask them to reflect on their feelings about what they see. Explain what it means to be an upstander or someone who intervenes on behalf of a person being bullied by speaking or acting out. Discuss how your child can role model prosocial behavior, inclusivity, and other appropriate and safe ways to be an upstander, such as:

  • Welcoming others to join their activities and groups
  • Showing kindness, respect, and empathy for others
  • Walking or sitting with vulnerable kids who may be targets of bullying
  • Intervening as a group by enlisting the help of other friends who dislike or fear the bully
  • Changing the subject when a taunting conversation begins
  • Questioning the bullying behavior by asking to do something else
  • Using humor to lighten up a serious situation
  • Stating approval of the victim and validating his or her social status
  • Reaching out privately to the target to express support and concern
  • Reporting the bullying to a trusted adult, parent, teacher, or school administrator
  • Reaching out privately to the person doing the bullying to express concern, if you feel safe to do so

Most importantly, tell your child how proud you are of them when they show compassion and help targets of bullying. Help them identify the positive emotions resulting from their good deeds. Having a strong sense of self will prevent your child from becoming a bully, and it will teach her how to stop bullying effectively when others bully her or other classmates.

Anti-Bullying Resources

Stop Bullying: Next Steps

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