No matter how we try to shield them, many neurodivergent children and teens will unfortunately deal with teasing and bullying at and outside of school.
Sometimes, they are on the receiving end of a bully’s taunts. Other times, they may lash out and become the aggressor themselves.
Impulse control, emotional regulation, and difficulties with social interactions can unpredictably impact their behavior. To respond to bullying effectively, kids with ADHD benefit from working on The 3 R’s: Recognition, Response, and Resilience.
Three ways to help kids with ADHD stand up to bullies
1. Recognize bullying behaviors
Start by helping your child recognize when bullying behavior occurs, whether it’s being the target, participating as a bystander, or acting as the aggressor. Physical aggression, verbal abuse, and relational aggression (like spreading rumors, organized social exclusion, or “ganging up” on someone) are all types of bullying that are problematic for everyone involved.
Bystanders can empower kids who taunt others by joining in or being present and silent, which gives their consent. Usually, they do this to avoid becoming the target. It’s critical to break down the components of bullying with your child so they understand its different parts and how they interact. Ask them about times when they’ve witnessed or participated in these three roles in a social situation.
Although bullying can occur in person, cyberbullying has become the most common.
Many kids get their first cell phones in middle school and haven’t developed the maturity or social skills to use them thoughtfully and considerately. Take the time to discuss online safety and responsible phone use, and consider creating a family digital policy that everybody signs. This could include hours of screen use, types of screen use, bonus screen time, and consequences for posting irresponsibly.
Go over the meaning of a digital footprint and the long-term implications of posting inappropriate material for independent school applications, college admissions, and professional jobs later in life. Explain the ‘What Would Grandma Say’ rule: If you wouldn’t say it to your grandmother, don’t send it as a text, Snapchat, or Discord post.
Sometimes, children who engage in cyberbullying have been on the receiving end of hostile, mean, and critical social media strings. They may think that repeating these behaviors will make them more popular or finally get back at those kids who have hurt them. These choices often backfire.
2. Respond appropriately
If your child or teen has been involved in any bullying, as the victim, the aggressor, or the bystander, we want them to learn how to respond effectively.
Together, brainstorm two phrases your child can use for those uncomfortable moments and write them down on their phone or a post-it to help recall them. Then, do a role-play so they can practice these sentences.
Next, go over options to assist them in de-escalating their feelings of anger, hurt, fear, or frustration in these difficult moments. Create a few strategies and write these down, too.
Assist your child by having them text you so you can remind them of their choices. Kids need a strategy laid out to navigate those challenging situations.
Many neurodivergent kids don’t report bullying incidents to adults because they are afraid of what will happen. They don’t want to tattle on someone and increase the risk of retribution or exclusion.
Let your first response be compassion. Offer caring support to your distressed child. Stay calm, be present with them, and let them vent before planning what’s next. Then, you can figure out what to do together. When kids feel safe and heard by their parents, they will be more likely to turn to them in the future.
If you aren’t sure how to respond or are angry about what’s going on, thank your child for sharing and ask for some time to think things over. Settle yourself before doing anything.
Bullying is equally upsetting for parents as it is for their kids, and you might be triggered by events in your own life where you were taunted or rejected. If you are uncertain about what to do, seek advice from your partner, friend, therapist, or coach who can keep this information confidential. Then, when you are ready, circle back to the conversation with your child and discuss an action plan.
3. Build resilience
Healthy self-esteem and resilience are two great defenses against bullying. When kids feel good about themselves, understand their strengths, and pursue their interests, they’re better poised to respond effectively to aggressors. Moreover, they are more likely to refuse to align with aggressors against somebody else or to engage in bullying themselves.
Resilience means being able to bounce back from difficult situations or interactions. Having confidence in your abilities and knowing whatever challenges come, you have inner strengths to address them. If you aren’t sure what to do, you are comfortable asking for help. You can nurture these qualities in your child or teen by encouraging their interests, noticing their efforts, and validating when they follow through and cooperate.
Another way to bolster their self-confidence is to improve their social skills. You can help them develop close friendships by arranging family get-togethers, sleepovers, or game nights. Most kids need at least three friends: one they can hang out with on some days, another one whom they can hang out with on other days, and a third for when the first two are busy. If your child is struggling socially, reach out to teachers or guidance counselors who can help facilitate connections at school or consider counseling.
While we may not always prevent bullying, understanding why it happens and feeling prepared to respond effectively without being overly triggered will go a long way. Through honest conversations, brainstorming doable responses, and relying on collaboration, you will assist your child or teen in gaining the skills they need when faced with awkward social moments. They will have the tools to notice all types of bullying and respond appropriately and confidently.
Sharon Saline, Psy.D., is an international lecturer and workshop facilitator. She has focused her work on ADHD, anxiety, learning differences, and mental health challenges and their impact on the school and family dynamics for more than 30 years.