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.
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.”
Oops! 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. 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, and there are non-school situations where bullying can occur, too. It seems that parents could use a range of strategies.
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 are ways parents can also be more pro-active in preparing 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.
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 on my website. Go to the Bullies to Buddies Resource Page and click on the video titled The Idiot Game. It is also helpful to have your kids watch it.
About Dr. Kalman
Israel “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.
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?