Dealing with bullies


The link between ADHD and bullying behaviour and asks if parents can prevent their child from bullying others

Bullying is a significant issue for those who experience it and can be extremely difficult for both the families of children who are being bullied and the families of children who are bullying others. Children with SEN are more likely to be the victims of bullying behaviour. The Department of Children, Schools and Families’ (DCSF) Safe to Play report (2008) found that young people with SEN were three times more likely to be bullied “a lot” in schools and in the community than their peers.

However, research also shows that children with a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are proportionately more likely to display bullying behaviour. Holmberg and Hjern (2007) suggest that “Children diagnosed with situational or pervasive ADHD in fourth grade report being active bullies about three times as often and being bullied 10 times as often as other children.”

Their research is backed up by Unnever and Cornell (2003) who found that “Because many children with ADHD exhibit problems with aggression and have a relatively high incidence of comorbid conduct disorder (25 per cent) and oppositional defiant disorder (33 per cent) (Brown et al., 2001), they may be likely to engage in bullying. Other symptoms that might increase the likelihood of victimization include poor social skills, anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.” There is a substantial difference between ADHD and simple bad behaviour: ADHD is regarded as a condition that is present at birth or becomes manifest very early in childhood (Barkley, 1998), whereas low self-control is believed by Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) to result from deficiencies in child-rearing practices.

“Children with a diagnosis of ADHD are proportionately more likely to display bullying behaviour” For many parents, managing the behaviour of a child with ADHD proves impossible without some form of external help and support, and sadly many families do not have access to that support. Pupils with SEN are more than eight times more likely to be permanently excluded than those pupils with no SEN.

In a three year pilot project, called Be Someone to Tell, Family Lives received funding from the Department for Education (formerly the DCSF) to work with families to tackle bullying behaviour. In Hertfordshire and Gloucestershire two different local approaches were taken to mitigate the impact of challenging and bullying behaviour. In Hertfordshire, one element of the project aimed to prevent bullying and difficult behaviour in school children by working to support their families to manage and change their child’s unacceptable behaviour. In Gloucestershire, amongst other activities, there was a focus on reducing the impact of bullying by working with families to build emotional intelligence and resilience in their children, enabling them to resist and cope with bullying behaviour in others and prevent them from treating others in a way they did not wish to be treated.

Feedback from the families of those children who were on the point of exclusion because of their bullying and challenging behaviour has shown that learning some new parenting skills and different approaches to communicating with and disciplining their child has helped a number of families to turn their child’s behaviour around. In some cases, this change in their child’s behaviour has bought them to a point where they do not have a negative impact on their fellow pupils, and has therefore prevented them from being excluded.

How intervention works

Sarah is the mother of 12-year-old Joseph, who, until he was diagnosed as having ADHD, was involved in bullying while at primary school. Before Joseph’s diagnosis, Sarah felt that the school was not listening to her or supporting her son. She felt very lonely and helpless. “Before Joseph was on medication, if a child wound him up, then he would retaliate physically”, she says. “There was one incident which I only learnt about later from another parent where Joseph was chasing another pupil around with a pair of scissors. I also only then found out that Joseph had clashed with this same boy all the way through school. I wish the school had told me about this. As soon as I was aware of what was going on in school I sat down with Joseph and told him that if anyone wound him up, then he should not get involved but should go and tell a teacher. He did this, but this then made him a target, as children knew that if they taunted him he could not retaliate.”

Things changed, though, after Sarah shared her concerns with the school nurse. “The nurse was brilliant and arranged for Joseph to be assessed”, Sarah continues. “He was diagnosed with ADHD, which, although I expected as much, still came as a blow to me. He was given medication and this has made such a difference. His teacher in his final year at primary school was brilliant and they bonded really well and his grades went up.”

Now, Joseph is at secondary school and is enjoying life and school much more. With some support from the school and his parents, things have changed for the better. They have found ways of coping with difficult situations. “At school, if he feels he is getting worked up, he shows his teacher a special card and they let him go off to a bungalow in the grounds where trained staff talk to him and help him calm down”, says Sarah.

“I still have to handle things carefully. If he comes to me with a problem, he needs to physically see me talking to someone about it before he believes that I have listened to him and taken his concerns seriously. If I can’t do this, then I will ask the person I have spoken to speak to Joseph and say that I have spoken to them and tell him what they are going to do. If I didn’t do this, he would feel that this was an injustice.”


“Families of children who bully want and need help to turn their child’s behaviour around” While much of the focus of anti-bullying work is rightly on the victim and preventing bullying before it occurs with whole school interventions, there is also a need to focus particular attention on a child perpetrating bullying behaviour when that behaviour occurs. Doing so can help prevent the child bullying from using hurtful behaviour towards others in the future, can avoid the expense and human cost of exclusion and can help prevent the potential negative outcomes that are associated with bullying, such as future criminal behaviour.

In many cases, the families of children who bully want and need help to turn their child’s behaviour around. These families do not feel that anti-bullying help is available to them, and particular support and interventions must therefore be designed to ensure that these families can access the information and support that can help them to work with their child’s school and change their child’s behaviour. The right support now can help prevent costly problems in the future.

Further information

Jeremy Todd is Chief Executive of the charity Family Lives:

Jeremy Todd
Author: Jeremy Todd

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