Children with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) have challenges with being accepted by their peers. Often, they’re disliked by other kids, and have problems making and keeping friends. Behaviors resulting from the disorder, such as problems controlling their emotions and talking too much, could explain why these children are more vulnerable than other kids to be bullies, victims of bullying, or both bullies and victims.

In a study that examined children with ADHD in third to sixth grade, 17 percent were bullies according to teacher and parent reports, 27 percent reported that they were victims of bullying, and 14 percent were both bullies and victims. The result? A whopping 58 percent of children with ADHD were involved in bullying—compared to only 14 percent of children without ADHD. A similar pattern is evident with adolescents.

Because having ADHD is such a big risk factor for being a bully or a victim, getting the facts about the disorder will help you, as a parent of a kid with ADHD, better understand your child’s behavior and give you the information you need to work with your child’s teacher to help them with their peer relations.

What is ADHD?

ADHD is a neurobiological disorder that affects about 5 percent to 9 percent of children and adolescents—typically one to two children per classroom. Behaviors that are commonly observed in children with ADHD include inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.

Inattention can result in your child:

  • being easily distracted.
  • having problems getting started on and focusing on work.
  • having problems following instructions.
  • having difficulty organizing belongings and schoolwork.

Hyperactivity and impulsivity can result in your child:

  • fidgeting constantly.
  • talking too much.
  • running around when supposed to be working or playing quietly.
  • interrupting others, and calling out answers in class.
  • getting in trouble for acting before thinking.
  • becoming frustrated if asked to wait.

In part due to these behaviors children with ADHD struggle to succeed in school and have problems with peer relationships.

The Bully-Victim Risk

ADHD alone doesn’t increase the risk that your child will be a bully, but the 30 to 50 percent of kids with ADHD who also have oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) have problems regulating their emotions. They often argue with adults and peers, refuse to do what is asked, and sometimes do things that go against generally accepted ideas of what’s right and wrong. Children with ADHD and ODD are at a high risk for being bullies.

Additionally, children with ADHD are more likely than other kids to be victims because some of their behaviors are annoying to their peers. Kids with ADHD are described as being “in your face” and socially immature, since they frequently don’t have the social skills—such as flexibility and a willingness to compromise— that help to resolve conflicts. There’s a tremendous emotional impact from being a victim. Most children with ADHD who are victimized feel angry, sad, anxious, and helpless, and some even become severely depressed. Children with ADHD who have close friends, however, are less likely to be victims than those who have no close friends.

How You Can Help

Although there are no easy solutions, research on bullying has shown that educators are in a strong position to help—and assertive parents can empower teachers to make a difference. Here are five ways that teachers, with the support of moms and dads, can help children and adolescents with ADHD who are bullies or victims:

  • Monitor Peer Relationships. Since children and adolescents with ADHD are at risk to be victims or bullies, it’s important to watch how they interact with other kids. Parents and teachers should keep the lines of communication open when they are concerned that a child may be a bully or a victim.
  • Implement Anti-Bullying Strategies. Modeling respectful behavior, developing and enforcing a code of conduct, encouraging children to report bullying, and praising children for cooperative and respectful behaviors with each other can all reduce the occurrence of teasing, aggression and exclusion in the classroom and school yard.
  • Create a Peer Conflict Mediation Program. When children with ADHD learn strategies for successful conflict resolution by being trained as conflict mediators, they are often able to apply them to their own conflicts. Conflict mediation programs involve teaching a large group of students strategies for resolving conflicts such as talking about feelings appropriately, asking questions that lead to compromises, and working together to find solutions. Schools with a large number of conflict mediators have lower levels of aggression on the playground than other schools.
  • Identify Behaviors that Provoke Victimization. Watch children with ADHD carefully to figure out which behaviors seem to upset or annoy their peers. Use modeling, explicit teaching, and role-playing to help them identify their own social problems, develop social goals, generate positive alternate behaviors, predict the consequences of their actions, and plan the steps to reach their goals. Through asking questions, help them understand different people’s views, and coordinate their needs with those of others. Include children without ADHD in the training to provide helpful, positive peer models.
  • Find Playground Pals. Friends of children with ADHD are typically people with similar interests and compatible personalities. Place them together on the seating chart, and have the children do group work together—as long as they’re not disruptive to the rest of the class.

Despite being prone to involvement in bullying situations, kids with ADHD can steer clear of aggressive situations with their peers with your help. Let them know that you’re available when they’re upset, listen to them, show that you care, and help them with problem solving. Your efforts to prevent bullying will pay off, at school and at home.

This article is based on the following research reports:

Cardoos, S.L. & Hinshaw, S. P. (2011). Friendship as protection from peer victimization for girls with and without ADHD. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 39, 1035-1045.

Cunningham, C., Cunningham, L.J., Martorelli, V., Tran, A., Young, J., & Zacharias, R. (1998). The effects of primary division, student-mediated conflict resolution programs on playground aggression. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 39, 653-662.

Shea, B. & Wiener, J. (2003) Social Exile: The cycle of peer victimization for boys with ADHD. Canadian Journal of School Psychology. 18, 55-90.

Promoting Relationships and Eliminating Violence.

Timmermanis, V. & Wiener, J. (2011). Social risk factors for bullying in adolescents with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Canadian Journal of School Psychology, 26, 301-318.

Wiener, J. & Mak, M. (2009). Peer victimization in children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Psychology in the Schools, 46, 116-131.