When her 5-year-old son showed up at the door with a black eye and a bloody cut on his head, Brooke Fike knew it was time to take on the bullies. For weeks, several boys at school had been swinging their backpacks into her son's head. One day they dumped a carton of milk over him during lunch.
As Fike tried to remedy the problem, she realized that the bullies seemed to be the kids in class who couldn’t sit still and listen. They didn’t do their homework. They were almost constantly in motion.
Turns out, those behaviors could have been the first clue to parents and school officials that these boys might be the ones who were going to turn into bullies.
A new study shows that children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are almost four times as likely as others to be bullies. And, in an intriguing corollary, the children with ADHD symptoms were almost 10 times as likely as others to have been regular targets of bullies prior to the onset of those symptoms, according to the report in the February issue of the journal Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology.
The study followed 577 children — the entire population of fourth graders from a municipality near Stockholm — for a year. The researchers interviewed parents, teachers and children to determine which kids were likely to have ADHD. Children showing signs of the disorder were then seen by a child neurologist for diagnosis. The researchers also asked the kids about bullying.
The results underscore the importance of observing how kids with ADHD symptoms interact with their peers, says study co-author Dr. Anders Hjern, a professor in pediatric epidemiology at the University of Uppsala in Stockholm. These kids might be making life miserable for their fellow students. Or it might turn out that the attention problems they’re exhibiting could be related to the stress of being bullied.
"You can't learn if you're being bullied, if every day you're frightened of how you're going to be treated," says William Pollack, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
As for the bullies, they often need help with other issues, Pollack says. It’s not uncommon, for instance, to find that the aggressor is acting out because he’s depressed. And often, the kids who are doing the bullying have been bullied themselves, he adds.
Alan Kazdin, a specialist in child development, says the new results may help sensitize parents and teachers to the possibility that some kids with ADHD might have issues that go beyond antsy behaviors and attention problems. Estimates of how many kids have ADHD range from 4 percent to 12 percent.
Unfortunately though, treating ADHD won't remedy the bullying because drugs for the condition impact a child's ability to focus in school but not the aggression that could lead to bullying, says Kazdin, a professor of psychology and child psychiatry and director of the Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic at Yale University, and president of the American Psychological Association.
Still, the new study could help teachers and parents identify who's at potential risk of bullying and being bullied.
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“This is a huge problem in the schools,” says Dr. Joyce Nolan Harrison, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and director of Preschool Clinical Programs at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. Studies show it's particularly common in grades 6 through 10, when as many as 30 percent of students report they've had moderate or frequent involvement in bullying, she says.
The best solution for bullying is for schools to develop programs that help both the bullies and the bullied, experts say.
“Bullies are like the lion looking for a deer that’s left the herd,” says Patrick Tolan, director of the Institute for Juvenile Research at the University of Illinois. “They try to single out the weakest kid. The best way to stop this is to work on increasing inclusion by helping the bullied kids with social skills.”
Another strategy that can work: Help the bullied kids find each other. “If there are a bunch of them together, they can stand the bully down,” Pollack says. “They don’t have to beat the bully up. They just have to say, ‘Why are you treating my friend this way?’ The bully will often move on.”
In the end, though, schools might not have the inclination or resources to deal with bullying. In that case, parents need to take matters into their own hands. To do this, you’ll need to enlist the help of all the other parents of bullied children, says Pollack. “Parents have to work as a group,” he explains. “One parent is a pain in the [butt].A group of parents can be an educational experience for school authorities.”
One thing you shouldn’t do, Pollack says, is call up the bully’s parents. “You have no idea of what is going on in that kid’s home,” he says. “He may get hell for bullying your kid — or he may be told to keep it up.”
Ultimately, you may not be able to stop the bullying. “If schools are not prepared to take action, which is sometimes the unfortunate case, I believe parents should consider changing schools,” Hjern says.
That’s what Fike chose to do a few years ago. “I moved him to a different school where there’s a lot more parent participation,” she says. “It had gotten so he didn’t want to go to school and would cry in the morning. Now he can’t wait to go.”
Linda Carroll is a health and science writer living in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, Health magazine and SmartMoney.
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