Bullying: How to Help Children with ADHD

ADHD children bullying

Do anti-bullying programs truly work to protect children with ADHD, especially when they’re not at school? I’ve long had my doubts.  So, I did a little research.

In the process, I discovered the rather contrarian views of one veteran school psychologist: Israel “Izzy” Kalman, PhD, developer of the Bullies to Buddies program.

He graciously agreed to write about it (below) for ADHD Roller Coaster readers. While Dr. Kalman specifically talks about children here, I find the same strategy might be adopted by adults with ADHD who feel bullied in their personal lives or at work.

First, a Little Background

A few years ago, I served as one of four ADHD experts at a non-profit’s fundraiser. Event-goers  generously donated in order to have lunch and talk with us (Thomas E. Brown, PhD, Patricia Quinn, MD, and Robert Brooks, PhD, and me—lucky to be in the company of my heroes and mentors).

One mother asked me what she could do to protect her son from bullying at school.

ADHD children bullying

First I cautioned her that I’m not a pediatric ADHD expert and certainly not an expert on anti-bullying tactics.

Then I ventured, “You know, it seems to me that even schools with the best bully-prevention programs can do only so much. There will be many times when the child is out of a teacher’s view—or even at home online. It would seem the best protection you can offer your child is to teach him or her how to handle the bullies, to be bully-proof.”

Bully-Proof — Oop! Did I  Say The Wrong Thing?

An educational therapist sitting across the table shot daggers at me. Apparently, I’d said the wrong thing.

Make no mistake: Schools should have no-bullying policies, no question. But we need to understand certain clear factors.

During my 13 years in parochial schools, I enjoyed an environment that emphasized compassion and charity. I can’t remember seeing a single instance of bullying. But not every child has that kind of environment.

Moreover, since my schooldays, children with developmental and physical challenges have been “mainstreamed” in schools. That created a new level of complexity.

Not to forget: There’s an ancient human survival instinct to fear and even ostracize the “other”—anyone who looks or acts differently.  This survival instinct might have helped us thousands of years ago. Trouble is, our brains haven’t kept up with societal changes. Children’s brains are still developing, especially the prefrontal cortex, or rational brain.

There are non-school situations where bullying can occur, too. It seems that parents could use a range of strategies.

Then I Found An Anti-Bullying Expert Agrees

One phrase came to mind: “It’s easier to wear slippers than to carpet the entire world,” from Al Franken’s Saturday Night Life character, self-help guru Stuart Smalley. (“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!”)

Surely, there must also be ways parents can better prepare their children to handle bullies and to discern between truly damaging bullying and the more common teasing and bothering behaviors.

When I came home, I started searching online for an approach along these lines, and that’s when I found Izzy Kalman. Be sure to check out the videos on his website; they are both entertaining and insightful.

Bullying Among Children with ADHD

By Israel (Izzy) Kalman, MS, NCSP

It is an honor for me to be asked by Gina Pera, internationally acclaimed expert on ADHD, to write an article on bullying for this blog. I hope I do the subject justice and provide help to some of you.

The Seriousness of the Bullying Problem

One of the worst things that can happen to a kid is to become a victim of relentless bullying. They get picked on daily, and nothing they or the school do to make it stop seems to work.

Researchers have discovered, not surprisingly, that the prolonged experience of being bullied can harm children for the rest of their lives. It can hurt them not only emotionally but physically as well. Also, as is all too well-known, victims of bullying can become tragically violent towards themselves and others.

Researchers have also discovered another fact that we all seem to know—that children with ADHD are more likely than their peers are to become victims of bullying. Adding insult to injury, many of them get labeled bullies by their schools because they are likely to react impulsively and aggressively towards those that are tormenting them.

Why Do Kids Become Victims of Bullying?

To understand why children with ADHD are more likely to get bullied (and by bullying I specifically mean being picked on repeatedly by the same people), it is necessary to understand the dynamics of bullying.

The following explanation may sound overly simplistic. However, for the great majority of bullying situations, it is accurate. There is no relationship between the complexity of a problem and the amount of misery it causes.

All social creatures, including human beings, are programmed to enjoy power and dominance. That’s why having power feels good and being powerless feels bad. This drive for power varies in intensity from individual to individual, but it is as universal as the biological drives for food, sex and sleep.

When we do something that gives us power, we feel pleasure. The pleasure reinforces the act, so we are likely to do it again. That’s why, for instance, when we get upset by tantrums, children are likely to throw them very often. They’re a great way to dominate us.

Let’s say you and I are kids. You insult me and I get upset. I don’t like being upset; I want to feel happy. So when you turn me from a happy person into an upset one, you have defeated me. You feel a rush of power. Furthermore, when I get upset I look like a fool, so you can’t respect me.

You have now discovered that you can get pleasure by insulting me. And because you can’t respect me when I look like a fool, you have no compunctions about doing it to me repeatedly. In other words, you feel I deserve being insulted.

Recognize Vicious Cycle: Action and Re-action

You may be doing this to me unknowingly. Most reinforcers in life lie beyond our conscious awareness. For example, parents usually have no idea that they are actually encouraging the tantrums–because they are trying so hard to make them stop!

Similarly, if you are insulting me constantly, you are probably not thinking, “Oh, when I insult Izzy [me] and he gets upset, I am defeating him, so I will do it again and again.” But the very fact that I am getting upset with you for insulting me is making you more likely to continue doing it. It doesn’t necessarily make you an evil person. It is simply human nature at work.

In essence, I get trapped by an illusion. I believe I am getting upset because you are constantly insulting me. I don’t realize that you are constantly insulting me because I am getting upset!

By the way, this doesn’t mean that I am stupid for falling into your trap. It happens to the brightest of adults, too. Many of us have a spouse, boss, parent, or child that gets us upset regularly and we don’t realize how we are reinforcing their bad behavior towards us.

Now, if I am a kid with ADHD, I am more reactive than most kids. I don’t take the time to size up the situation and think of the best way to handle it. So you discover that I am a great target. Pick on me, and I am certain to get annoyed. As a result, you are more likely to pick on me than on other kids. If, on top of that, I get in trouble with the teacher for my conspicuous, impulsive reactions, it is a feather in your cap and tremendously increases your desire to pick on me!

Anti-Bullying Policies Don’t Work

It would be great if we could rely on the school to make bullying stop. However, we can’t.

While parents of bullied kids routinely accuse schools of doing nothing to make the bullying stop, it is an unfair attack against the schools.

Research has been showing unequivocally that the typical anti-bullying policies that schools are required to follow don’t work. In fact, they are likely to make the problem worse. Think about it: If you insult me and I tell the teacher, then you get sent to the principal’s office for bullying me, are you going to like me better? Will you want to be nicer to me?

Ultimately, the most reliable solution is to teach kids how to handle the bullying on their own. I have been teaching this for almost four decades by using highly structured role-playing games. Most kids get it very quickly, and they learn to stop falling into the trap of getting upset. I also teach them a larger framework of rules for treating kids as friends rather than enemies, and show them how to use the rules via role-playing for dealing with all of the bullying situations they are facing.

Helping Bullied Children with ADHD?

I must admit it is generally more difficult for me to succeed with kids who suffer from ADHD because they are more impulsive. When they are picked on, they are less likely to stop and think about what I taught them to do.

So how do I help them? Simply by more repetition of the role plays, and I may have to work with them daily for a few minutes until the correct response becomes second nature.

Gina asked me if I have any particularly powerful techniques that I use with kids with poor impulse control. The answer is, “No. If I did, I would use them with all kids.” My techniques are, in fact, quite powerful, which is why they work so well. It’s just that kids with ADHD may need more repetition.

It may also be helpful to treat the child for the ADHD symptoms in order for them to increase their ability to control themselves.

ADHD children bullying


How Can Parents Help Their Children with ADHD?

So if your kid is being bullied, how can you provide them with the help they need? Perhaps the best way is to perform a simple version of my techniques, as follows.

Say to your kid, “Call me an idiot and don’t let me stop you.” When they insult you, act really angry and warn them that they had better stop.

You are likely to discover that they continue insulting you while laughing gleefully. After a while, give up. Then ask them to do it again. The next time, be completely calm while you allow them to insult you all they want. They will probably get bored and stop after a while.

Then explain to them that when you were trying to stop them, you were actually making them have fun, so they continued. When you didn’t try to stop them, they got bored and stopped.

Ask your kids to try it for one week with the kids who are picking on them. It is also a good idea to have them practice. Tell them you will insult them and they are to refuse to get upset no matter what you say. If they can do it with you, perhaps they will succeed with other kids.

You can see this technique in action in a video clip  The Idiot Game. It is also helpful to have your kids watch it.

Good luck!

About Dr. Kalman

IIzzy Kalmansrael “Izzy” Kalman is a Nationally Certified School Psychologist who has been working in schools and private practice since 1978. He makes available a variety of resources on his website, including a free manual, How to Stop Being Teased and Bullied Without Really Trying, and other print and audio items for purchase. He also offers remote consultations.





Related Topics:

Liberals, Conservatives Agree: Bash ADHD, Bully People Who Have ADHD

Originally published May, 2015; Updated June 15, 2021

Have you or your child had experiences with bullying? What tactics worked (or did not work) for you?
—Gina Pera


9 thoughts on “Bullying: How to Help Children with ADHD”

  1. Margaret Shibley

    So simple. There is a lot more in this kind and wise article than just helping ADD kids thicken their armour. I intend to do some ‘cogitatin’ ‘ about my own behaviours.
    In the interim, here’s a story about my beloved ADHD son. He came home from Grade 5 with a video and popcorn. His teacher had made a record and sent it home with each of the kids who had performed before the whole school in what she called liturgical dance. Eight or so lovely girls dressed all in white, moving gracefully to “We Three Kings” – and my boy in the middle in black looking like Rudolph Nuryev. I’d had no idea this had taken place. After exclaiming over how lovely and intriguing the performance was, I asked in my very careful neutral voice, “So, what did the other guys in your class say?” (He was in a Grade 5/6 split, and school only went to 6.) “Meh. They called me twinkle toes for a couple of days, but it stopped.” That incredible moment of clarity! Where were you, my little love, when I was in Grades 6 to 8, being bullied by an entire class with 3 successive teachers who couldn’t handle the situation?

    1. Hi Margaret,

      “Meh” indeed. Sounds like you’ve raised a secure child. 🙂

      I’m so sorry to hear of your grade school experience. I wish you’d had the teachers I did. That should never, ever happen to a child.

      Nice to hear from you.


  2. Pingback: Proteger del bullying a tu hijo con TDAH | Dra. Elena Díaz de Guereñu

  3. Julie Moorefield

    Gina: Follow-up to your suggestion to use mail order pharmacies.

    Adderall & many ADHD medicines are considered a Type 2 drug. My Dr says the government (probably Medicare) will NOT let them write a prescription for more than 30 days and at the least amount available. I also have an excellent Health Care Supplement which has to go by this restriction.

    I am not alone in this situation. I know several other adults or parents of children with ADHA who have to go thru this same experience. This has not always been this way. Has changed past 2 years altho Dr. & I still had to go round & round with mail order Pharmacies to get 90 days approved. “Affordable Health Care” the reason ?????.

    Time for a change, plus better education re the products, and a system to monitor who’s abusing the medicine.

    1. Hi Julie —

      Yes, I’m fully area that the stimulants are Schedule II medications.

      I don’t know the rules from Medicare and filling stimulant prescriptions. That’s a special case. But perhaps your doctor is unclear on which “government” is prohibiting him from writing a 90-day prescription, if one is at all. Perhaps he is right, or perhaps he is uninformed or worried about patients selling/abusing the Rx.

      I don’t know that ACA has anything to do with it; I’m here to tell you that many HORRIBLE things happened before ACA. 😉

      Sometimes the mail-order stimulant option is determnined by state law.

      You might want to check with your state insurance commissioner.


      We live in California and haven’t had a problem with receiving stimulants via mail-order in 10 years.

  4. Julie Moorefield

    Thank you for your insight into how to teach children to avoid being a bully or being bullied. My 6 yr old great-grandaughter has been diagnosed with ADHD and can be very assertive or take action if she thinks someone is offending her. Then says ” grand-ma,I don’t have any friends, or, why doesn’t my new schoolmates like me?”

    I’m passing this on to her mother, who also has ADHD, and is a high school teacher of Special Education teens. I think this will be very helpful in her day to day teaching skills including dealing with her own daughter.

    We are a 3rd generation of ADHD women. I was not diagnosed until recently and am 73.

    Do you realize how difficult it is to be an adult and find a Dr. who can work with you, not to mention prescribing a medication for it. And, only for a months dosage? Very dishearting. Makes me feel like a criminal because I have to go thru so many hoops and consider myself to be a responsible, well educated person about my health issues. This is a subject that needs to be looked at and discussed more with the “gate keepers”.

    1. Hi Julie,

      Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you found Izzy’s article helpful.

      It’s always great to be self-assertive, but it’s best to do it without being “in one’s face.” 🙂 Also, to let some things roll off one’s back.

      And yes, I certainly do realize how difficult it is to find medical care when you’re an adult with ADHD. I’ve been advocating in this area for 16 years, and that has been one of my major platforms: improving access and the standard of care.

      Stay tuned for an exciting blog-post series my husband (a life scientist) and I are writing, about genetic testing that can help narrow down medication choices for ADHD.

      As for monthly prescriptions, I deeply encourage you to look into any mail-order pharmacy benefit you might have. I order my husband’s medications only four times annually, and boy is that a LOT easier. Plus, the mail-order company is never out of the Rx, as so many storefront pharmacies are.

      Plus, we don’t get lip from the pharmacist! 🙂


  5. This is fabulous, thank you! My son gets bullied by the kid down the street and try as I have to keep them separated, the teacher has them sitting next to one another at school! I will give this a try, wish us luck.

    ~ Jennie

    1. Good luck, Jennie. It might be a great lesson for the rest of his life. Because our culture just seems to get more and more “bully’ish.”


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