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ADHD Students at Increased Risk of Bullying, Being Bullied

By Hugh C. McBride

From first-day jitters to exam angst to worries about finding a prom date, the school years are rarely without their pressures and stresses. And many mental health experts are of the opinion that one of the most prevalent and potentially damaging sources of school stress is bullying.

Once viewed as little more than an annoying rite of passage, bullying is now seen as capable of inflicting life-long emotional damage on victims, and as indicative of possibly significant mental health problems for perpetrators.

In an online article that was originally published in ADDitude magazine, clinical psychologist Peter Jaska, Ph.D., addressed the prevalence of bullying in the United States today:

  • A nationally representative study of more than 15,000 students in grades six through 10 revealed that 17 percent of students reported having been bullied during that school term.
  • About 19 percent of the children who were surveyed reported bullying others "sometimes" or more often.
  • Six percent of the surveyed students said they had been both perpetrators and victims of bullying.
  • In another national study of sixth grade students and their teachers, researchers with the University of Nebraska discovered that 75 percent of survey participants had been victims of bullying, had bullied others, or had been both a perpetrator and a victim, during the current school year.

No child is immune from being bullied, but kids who are considered to be "outside the norm" (for example, students with learning disabilities, overweight children, and gay youth) are often at increased risk for being victimized by bullies.

For parents of children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), the threat of bullying can be a double-edged sword. While their children's behaviors and possible learning differences may raise the risk that they will be victimized, studies have shown that kids with ADHD have an increased likelihood of being bullies themselves.

Risk Factors for Being a Bully

The National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center (NYVPRC) has identified the following traits as common to young bullies:

  • Bullies tend to be very confident, and have high levels of self-esteem.
  • Bullies have a tendency to be easily angered, impulsive, and physically aggressive.
  • Bullies usually have a low threshold (and tolerance) for frustration.
  • Bullies often dislike school, have a history of academic struggles, and get in trouble more often than their peers.
  • Though some bullies are loners, most have trouble-making friends (many of whom also enjoy violence and engage in bullying behaviors themselves).

Though the stereotypical bully is an oversized boy who torments smaller or younger boys, female students also bully (and are bullied). Male bullies are more likely to engage in physical intimidation, while girls may use ostracism, rumors, and cyber-bullying (harassing or spreading lies about a person via the Internet, cell phone text messages, and other electronic means).

Bullying and ADHD

In 2008, Swedish researchers revealed a strong connection between ADHD and bullying (both perpetrators and victims). MSNBC contributor Linda Carroll described the Stockholm study in a Jan. 29, 2008 article:

A new study shows that children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder are almost four times as likely as others to be bullies. And, in an intriguing corollary, the children with ADHD symptoms were almost 10 times as likely as others to have been regular targets of bullies prior to the onset of those symptoms, according to the report in the February [2008] issue of the journal Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology.

The study followed 577 children – the entire population of fourth graders from a municipality near Stockholm – for a year. The researchers interviewed parents, teachers and children to determine which kids were likely to have ADHD. Children showing signs of the disorder were then seen by a child neurologist for diagnosis. The researchers also asked the kids about bullying.

The results underscore the importance of observing how kids with ADHD symptoms interact with their peers, says study co-author Dr. Anders Hjern, a professor in pediatric epidemiology at the University of Uppsala in Stockholm. These kids might be making life miserable for their fellow students. Or it might turn out that the attention problems they’re exhibiting could be related to the stress of being bullied.

About 10 months prior to the publication of the Stockholm study, an article in the journal Ambulatory Pediatrics reported that children who have been diagnosed with both autism and ADHD are four times more likely than their peers in the general population to be bullies.

A May 23, 2007 article on the Medical News Today website provided the following information:

  • Researchers with the Children's Institute in Rochester, N.Y., evaluated data that had been collected during the 2003 National Survey of Children's Health.
  • The data sample that researchers analyzed included information on 53,219 children between the ages of 6 and 17.
  • The researchers hypothesized that that children with autism may be more likely to bully others for the following three reasons: 1. They are more often male (who are more likely to bully); 2.They are more likely to be bullied (and victims are more likely to bully); 3. Many children with autism require treatment for aggression (which potentially includes bullying).
  • The researchers discovered that autistic children did not have higher rates of bullying unless they also had Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

Overcoming Bullying

Bullying remains a prevalent problem in U.S. schools, and children with ADHD face significant challenges related to bullying others or being victimized themselves. And though ADHD medications do not appear to affect bullying, there are steps that parents and children can take to decrease the likelihood that they will be affected by bullying.

For example, in Shoshone, Idaho, the SUWS wilderness program has more than 30 years of experience providing therapeutic wilderness experiences for teens with ADHD, mood disorders, attachment disorders, and tendencies toward defiance and manipulation. Employing an innovative "search and rescue" treatment model, SUWS identifies and addresses the underlying causes of negative teen behaviors, and helps adolescents develop the skills and healthy attitudes that allow them to become positive contributing members of their families, schools, and communities.


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