Children with ADHD at Risk for Bullying and Self Harm

Children with ADHD at Risk for Bullying and Self Harm

ADHD experts have long known that children, teens and adults with ADHD are at increased risk for bullying at school, work and even at home.

Unfortunately, a recent study showed children bullied by peerswhen they are younger are up to three times more likely to harm themselves in adolescence.”

Researchers followed 1,116 sets of twins from 1994 to 1995 until their twelfth birthday and discovered almost 8% of those who were victims of frequent bullying deliberated tried to harm themselves. In contrast, only 2% of those who were not bullied tried self-harming behaviors.

Observed self-harming behaviors included:

  • Attempted suicide by strangulation
  • Cutting arms
  • Biting body parts
  • Banging their head against walls
  • And pulling out clumps of hair.

In our practice, we have seen kids who deliberated excessively tattooed parts of their body as a result of the stress of being bullying. One teenage girl told me she had done so in hopes her tormentors would leave her alone because they would think she was crazy.

Another bully-abused teen in our practice explained he tattooed his arms to keep from “slicing and dicing them with my knife.”  His tattoos were done using regular ink from writing pens he broke open. As a result of the rubbing alcohol he used to extract the ink, both of his arms were terribly scarred and disfigured under the tattoos.

Another 11 year-old showed up with dozens of bruises on his arms and legs-all in the shape of bite marks. He literally had “drawn blood” to overcome the anger and stress of being bullied by a 13 year-old who lived a few doors down.

We suspect all of the above listed self-injury, self-harm behaviors are used by the child to try to cope with the extreme stress and distress of being bullied. Even ADHD children eventually learn how to avoid pain and suffering, but unfortunately are often slow to pick up on the little social clues that warn them  of danger and are therefore subjected to more abuse and harm.

Bullies tend to get a lot of satisfaction out of seeing distress and fear in their victims. They often evoke such responses by directly or indirectly abusing the victim by frequently displaying these bullying behaviors:

  • Kicking, hitting, and shoving
  • Playing mean tricks
  • Verbally abusing them in front of peers
  • Telling and spreading lies about them
  • Excluding them from peer relationships
  • Totally ignoring their existence
  • Threatening them over the internet.

Of the children in the self-harm-bullying group of the above mentioned study, there was an increase in psychotic behavior, conduct disorder, depression, and borderline personality disorder.  It’s no small wonder as all of these psychological problems can occur as a result of stress. I expect the group also suffered loads of generalized anxiety disorder-it just wasn’t mentioned.

It’s important to note that many children who are victims of bullying resort to self-injury after they have sought help from a peer or an adult and not been successful. When all else has failed, they turn to more drastic-attention-getting behaviors in a plea for help. Sadly, they are often blamed for their own behavior.

That brings us back to the opening statement in this article: children, teens and adults with ADHD are at increased risk for bullying at school, work and even at home and are more likely to harm themselves in adolescence when bullied prior to age twelve years.

With that fact firmly in mind, our task should be to detect bullying at as early a stage as possible and prevent these kids from harming themselves.

This is best done by understanding why and how bullying occurs and recognizing the early signs and symptoms of bullying in your ADHD child, teen or spouse.

Special note: Many teens and adults with ADHD who suffer bullying probably engage in some type of self-harm or high risk behavior because of the stress of the bullying. It’s just we don’t know how often it occurs and don’t have current studies to relate numbers of victims.

We’d love to have your comments on this topic. Maybe you can share a bullying experience from your childhood or that involves a loved one that has negatively affected you or them in some way.

In our next article, we’ll explore the early signs and symptoms of bullying.

Frank Barnhill, MD



BMJ 2012;344:e2683 doi: 10.1136/bmj.e2683 (Published 26 April 2012)
Bullying victimisation and risk of self harm in early adolescence: longitudinal cohort study
Accessed 052012.

Pediatrics Staff. Modern Medicine. Victims of bullying more likely to self-harm. May 10, 2012 on-line issue. Assessed 051012.


Here are a few previous article you might want to peruse:

ADHD Impulsive Behavior and Risk of the Choking Game

Adolescents More Prone to Cyberbullying

Kids and Teens Who Suffer Bullying More Likely to be Misdiagnosed as ADHD