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Kids and adults with ADHD are more likely to be bullied than their peers. So in honor of National Bullying Prevention Month this October, we’re doing a special episode to shed light on the problem.

Psychologist and Understood expert Dr. Andy Kahn — who has ADHD himself — answers Laura’s questions on ADHD and bullying. What behaviors make kids with ADHD targets for bullying? Are people with ADHD more likely to bully others? What can we do about it?

You’ll also hear bullying stories from a number of “ADHD Aha!” guests — some you’ve heard in previous episodes, and some you haven’t.

Get more information at

Episode transcript

Peach: I was bullied in elementary school. I always felt like there was something different about me, and I felt like I was always too much. It was like talking at the wrong time or too energetic. Just like a lot.

Laura: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "ADHD Aha," a podcast where people share the moment when it finally clicked that they or someone they know has ADHD. My name is Laura Key. I'm the editorial director here at Understood. And as someone who's had my own ADHD "aha" moment, I'll be your host.

Hi everyone. We have a special episode for you today in honor of National Bullying Prevention Month, which is every October. I think this is such an important topic and one that doesn't get enough attention when it comes to its connection to ADHD. So I wanted to dedicate an entire episode to ADHD and bullying. A lot of guests, like Peach, who you just heard from at the top of the show, have talked about bullying on this podcast. You'll hear a few more clips throughout the episode from more "ADHD Aha!" guests.

And joining me today to talk about ADHD and bullying from an expert perspective is Dr. Andy Kahn. Andy is an Understood expert in learning and psychology and the host of Season 1 of the "Understood Explains" podcast, which is all about the special education evaluation process. He's a licensed psychologist who's been in practice for over 20 years. And for much of that time, he worked in school systems doing evaluations, consultation, and supporting families of kids who learn and think differently. And Andy also has ADHD. Bonus points for our show. Welcome, Andy.

Andy: Thanks so much for having me.

Laura: Let's hop right in. Andy, are kids with ADHD more likely to be bullied?

Andy: Yeah. Kids with ADHD tend to be targeted at a higher number than neurotypical kids. And certainly there's a lot of reasons why that could be. Kids with ADHD very commonly have difficulty understanding and interacting in a socially appropriate way. So they might not always understand the social rules or enter a social situation too abruptly. Or do things that sort of get other people's attention in a way that maybe isn't terribly positive in the social world. In certain situations, being pushed around, being called names is awfully easy for kids who are looking to sort of grab power and put somebody else down.

I always sort of joke that lots of kids with ADHD, including myself as a child, there's a button in the middle of our chest. It's this imaginary button, and the people who get to know us know how to push that button and sort of wind us up and get us going. Whether it's talking about something we're hyperfocused on or if it's something they know makes us really obsess. But in those ways, there's unfortunately a lot of hooks for kids with ADHD to get drawn into a bullying interaction. And it's really challenging, because there's enough things going on for young people who have ADHD to try to navigate their world without being singled out or treated, you know, in a really unkind way.

Laura: That's really interesting. That's an interesting way to talk about it. The first thing that I thought of as a person with ADHD when you said that was I have these memories from when I was a kid of feeling like people didn't understand what I was saying — or that people had misrepresented or mischaracterized something that I said. I always tried to be really deliberate about everything I said, because my brain was racing a million miles an hour. So I would almost script out the things that I would say in my head. And so if folks misunderstood something that I said, I would get really — like my feathers would get super ruffled and I would replay the conversation for them. Like I had memorized it and replay it for them. And they would poke fun at me for it and I would kind of start to lose it a little bit. I mean, does that does any of that sound familiar for you?

Andy: Without a doubt. I mean, without a doubt. I think the thing is, certain things in our environments for all humans, for all people, are triggering to their emotions and sort of charge them up. When someone has ADHD, and we're trying to cope with our environment, we're trying to navigate something that may be difficult for us, it can become even more difficult when those triggers are really easy to hit. When somebody, you know, makes fun of you, if somebody comes at you with something they know is upsetting to you because they want to see you blow up or they want to see you act out. And certain kids are pretty perceptive to that. And, you know, it's really difficult when you see it coming.

And I remember the phrase — my mom saying, "Why do you let your sister push your buttons?" And so that always stayed in my mind that someone pushes your buttons. But kids like me, kids like a lot of the kids I've worked with over the years, the button is not only big and red, it's on the center of their chest and it's visible for anybody who's really looking and paying attention to wind them up. And I think that's a great target for bullying behavior — being really easily triggered in a way that other people can see that you might not even be aware of. That's really sort of the trap for folks with ADHD.

Laura: Let's talk more about why that button is so red and bright and so easy to spot. So there's some interesting information on the website that talks about what kinds of kids are more likely to be bullied. And they don't mention ADHD outright. But the very first bullet that's listed there is kids who are perceived as different from their peers, such as being overweight or underweight or wearing glasses or different clothing or being new to a school, or kids who are perceived as weak or unable to defend themselves. These are the kids who are more likely to be bullied. And I think that that very much is in line with a lot of kids with ADHD. So what I'd love to talk about with you is what are the traits of kids with ADHD that make them more susceptible to bullying?

Andy: You know, I think a lot of this is around tendencies. When we think about kids and we think about becoming part of a social group or joining your social world, skills development for kids with ADHD can be different. It can happen on a different pace than kids who don't have ADHD. So I think that very commonly when kids get to be around the age of — I think middle school is a perfect target age to talk about. Kids really start to appreciate and in some cases reject differences in people. So when they see something that's not like them, they tend to hold on to it and respond to it with great force.

And I think kids with ADHD tend to behave in a way that's not like the norm. And we talk about the word "norm." You know, I don't I don't like the word "normal" as a matter of course. It's a statistical word, right? You think about the bell curve, and normal is something we see that falls right in the middle. But when we talk about the norm, which is the way that most kids tend to behave during a certain phase of their lives, kids with ADHD may fall outside of that. And now it's starting to be noticed, which makes it really challenging for them because their ability to do things that might come naturally to a neurotypical child — like how do I enter a conversation that's already going on? Or how do I come over and try to introduce myself or try to engage in some sort of social interaction? But my first go-to behavior is to be really silly or to be really loud or to just interrupt. And it's not malevolent. It's not intended to be a problem for other people. But it is because it misses the social connection. It misses the rule.

So I think that one of the challenges for kids with ADHD is that kids can irritate one another. So if somebody is a little bit too energetic or over the top, it can irritate their peers. Or let's go to the other side of the equation. If somebody is a little bit more low-key and a little more passive and maybe more inattentive and not really so over-the-top in their behavior patterns, but they're really struggling to get the nuances. They may come in really mousy, really lacking confidence. And that's another really good marker for, oh, here's somebody who I can have power over. And I think that more of the bullying behaviors.

I think it's — the trap is often we focus so much on kids who have the stereotypical hyperactive ADHD, and we understand a lot of the obvious things they do that break with their group norms. But we often ignore the kids who have the inattentive type because they tend to sit on the fringe, not engage as often or make friends as easily. But because their behavior doesn't overtly affect other people in their realm, they may be less likely to be singled out or picked on by their teachers for oh, I need to step in and help this kid.

But their peers, on the other hand, especially peers who have an eye for power differentials, for bullying behavior, see almost the weaker animal on the fringe of the larger animal group, and they're going to go and pick off that individual. So it's a little interesting how kids who are a little more passive with ADHD — I'm thinking inattentive ADHD — are going to still be picked off in the bullying behavior because that vulnerability is still visible. And that's, again, power differential. Who has the authority or the ability to make someone else do something they want them to do or make them react in a way you want them to. And that's a lot of what bullying behavior is about.

Laura: What about kids who hyperfocus? I think maybe the example I was giving about myself growing up was slightly related to hyperfocus — just getting stuck on something. Don't misinterpret what I said and just replaying it and replaying it. Does hyperfocus play into bullying situations ever?

Andy: Well, absolutely. If you're trying to interact and the child you're interacting with, the person you're interacting with, can't shift or can't move on to the topic other people are talking about, it actually takes a fairly kind individual to give them the space to finish their thought or to get where they need to go in order to — we talk about completing the gestalt. OK, when I start something, I need to finish it. I often joke — I talked to one of my good friends this morning and we were talking about two topics. And because I tend to hyperfocus, I said, "I'm a linear thinker." I need to take our first topic to the endpoint and then I'm going to go to this. And I said this to her: "Forgive me, I'm going to cover the work issue first. Then I'm going to talk to you about the personal issue that you raised." Because it was confusing to my ADHD. My brain started doing both things at once, which is not always a good thing for me.

So for the hyperfocus side, absolutely. When you can't shift, it becomes very awkward to interact. If you can't disengage from a topic, you become a more challenging peer partner or playmate or someone to spend time around. And again, it makes you look different if it winds you up. So like you described your own experience, right? You're being misunderstood or misinterpreted and it raised your energy level, it raised your anxiety level. And then what it did is made the hyperfocus even more hyper. For me, when I was young, I would have probably stormed out or thrown something because that was my way of coping with that kind of intensity of energy. And for other kids, they could cry or disengage or just shut down. There's a lot of those factors with hyperfocus. And I think hyperfocus is probably one of the most misunderstood parts of ADHD because I think for people, they hear hyperfocus and they think autism spectrum, someone gets stuck.

But ADHD for me has never been just about being distractible. It's also about my brain doesn't shift my attention in the most efficient way at times. So when I'm trying to go from one topic to another or one activity to another, that's one of the areas where I find I can become impaired in my activities. So it's — sometimes you got to really explain it to people because they're not going to get it.

Kenny: I definitely experienced bullying when I was growing up. Not only was I short and the youngest kid in my class, I also was immature, acted like a much younger kid. I looked like a much younger kids. So I was a target. And interestingly enough, I wasn't a target for people my age. I was a target for people one year younger than me. They were bigger than me. They were probably more mature than me. And so that's where the bullying came from.

Laura: I did have a guest on the show recently. His name was Kenny. We just heard a clip from him. He is now a really successful creative director at a company. And Kenny shared a really emotional story with me about how he was bullied because he seemed so immature. He said he was also very short growing up, so he's shorter than the other kids. So that factored into it as well. But he mentioned I just he just seemed younger than he was. Can you talk a little bit about ADHD and the brain immaturity and the — I've heard it described as a three-year lag. Is that right?

Andy: You know, I hate to get stuck on specific numbers like three-year lag. If we think about it developmentally, the development of the brain structures, particularly things that relate to attention, decision making, multi-step thinking, and self-control, are things that tend to develop more slowly in individuals with ADHD. And I often use more of a ratio than the number. So I would say kids with ADHD might function at about two-thirds of their chronological age. You know, I was told there'd be no math, but I'll do the math anyway. So, you know, your 9-year-old is commonly more likely to act like a 6-year-old. And that often — I think it's more about explaining it to the observer than it is to explain it to the child himself, because really they just know where they are. That's the basis of being egocentric. I am where I am and that's where you have to understand me from, right? Meet me where I am.

But when it comes to explaining the child to the parents or to the teacher or to a friend who might be trying to figure out why are they doing something that looks like my little brother or my little sister? I might say to them, well, that's just something they they do a little less easily than you do. Or to a teacher who really likes to think of when I'm redirecting that same child over and over again, if I can just set my brain on the fact that, OK, I have to expect that they're capable in this moment of doing what I would with my — again, I'll use the 9-year-old as my example — my first grader, not my third or fourth grader. And if you have that expectation as you interact with that child, it's a kinder way to approach them.

It's not to say we don't hold them accountable as we teach them the social rule, but I think the expectation is always overly based on some norm, like a number for age or something of the peer group. And I think that that's the risk. So when you're talking about three years behind, that makes sense for a lot of kids across the age range. If you run that ratio across kids up until the age of 10 or 11, it makes a lot of sense when they get into the school age. But I like the two-thirds rule because it applies way better when you start to think about young adults. And I think that we don't give enough props to young adults with ADHD. You're not outgrowing this.

Yasmeen: I got bullied a lot when I was in school. And so I felt like in order to like maintain some form of social connection with my other peers, I sort of had to morph into what they believe or perceive normal is.

Laura: We all know the names that kids with ADHD can get called, like a spaz is something that comes to mind, or hyper, or even just using ADHD as the insult: You're so ADHD. And I'm wondering if in your practice and in your work with schools, if you could share any examples of bullying scenarios that you've seen kids with ADHD experience.

Andy: The sad truth is that so many of these situations are situations I've seen repeat themselves over and over again. I'll start with the more obvious kind of bullying. We'll talk about the face-to-face in-person bullying because, you know, over the course of my career, we've now gotten into the idea of cyberbullying, which is a whole other ball of wax. But, you know, it was very common where I'd have — and again, it happened a lot with my middle school age kids — where we'd see, you know, a young man or young woman on the bus and someone would come in and sit a seat behind them and just start making up a nickname or teasing, doing little hard-to-notice annoying behaviors. Kicking the chair over and over again, unzipping part of their backpack, and every time they walk out, making things fall out and then starting the laughter train against them.

And in the more dangerous cases, kids verbally threatening and saying, "Hey, if you sit in that spot again when we get on the bus, the end of the day, I'm going to kick your butt. I'm going to follow you home and I'm going to kick your butt in front of your parents." I mean, these are the kind of things that kids were saying to one another. And the basis of what bullying does in those situations, it's a bit like terrorism, right? The idea is that they're changing the behavior of the child who is being bullied by making them worry about things in the absence of the person. They're making them worry about where they go and what they do. And they're losing sort of their emotional freedom to just be who they are and go where they need to go.

So one of the hardest things about bullying is that when you finally become aware of it as an adult, as the teacher or parent, what have you, there's a trap built into dealing with bullying from the adult perspective. Because addressing bullying, let's say your child says to you, "Hey, Mom, there's this kid who's bullying me. He's doing X, Y, and Z." And the parent goes right in and talks to the school and shares the facts with the school, and then the school shares "This student has been saying that you're bullying." And they don't react very quickly or the child is immediately targeted again because they're seen as a snitch. They're seen as a baby.

And I think you have to be — you got to think that through as a parent or a teacher. How are you going to best address bullying behaviors without further victimizing the child who's being bullied? Great tips for that, for parents or teachers, once you become aware of some of that factual information about what's happening and where, the most effective thing you can do as an adult is to try to find a way to be there and observe it in its actual moment. If you can observe bullying in the wild, then you can deal with just that one child who is doing the bullying behavior in that moment and make the consequence realistic. But when it's reported and it's going from child to parents directly back to the other child who's bullying, it can be really, really loaded.

And you've got to think about bringing up the topic with the child who is acting out. How can you make sure that the fallout is safe, that they're not going to go and be vengeful towards the child who said, hey, I don't like this? Some of the strategies in addition to that, of course, are helping kids find their own voice, putting children in a situation where we teach them as best as we can to say, hey, stop. Or raise their voice or make a scene about it. And if they're able to do that, sometimes the adult then can see what's happening, or an adjacent peer can say, hey, what is it that you're doing?

You know, there's nothing more powerful, I think, in the bullying interaction that when a peer comes in to step in and help another peer. That is almost always like the most powerful thing. Because what it does is it says this is not the norm. Bullying or taking power over someone else is not OK. And our group of children are rejecting this. So I think that some of the bullying reduction methods are talking to the kids in the peer group about, you know, what are you going to do if you see someone else being treated this way? What are some things you can do to step out and share with adults or to say, you know, what you're doing isn't OK?

And I always caution — doing that is always helpful. Just be aware that if the danger of this situation is getting physical and the choice is to put yourself in the midst of a physical situation or not, you do what you're comfortable with, but ideally get someone to help you. The last thing we want to do is put kids in a dangerous situation. It's so hard because when bullying becomes physical, never going to be clean and clear how we're going to fix it. We just have to step in really fast and be ready for the consequences afterwards. It's just too much to lose in those physical situations.

Laura: When should parents step in and do something? I completely agree with everything that you're saying. I'm actually thinking about a scenario with my own daughter that I don't think would constitute bullying, but it was on the edge. It was teasing. And I myself felt confused about, should I step in? I don't want this to — and she was adamant that I say nothing, say nothing, because she didn't want to be embarrassed further. To your point. Right? But then what do you do in that situation if your child doesn't want you to bring it up at all and there aren't peers who are either old enough or who have the understanding to step in and help. What can you do?

Andy: So I think in those situations, as a parent, depending upon where it's happening, if this is happening in school, trying to have a generic conversation with the teacher or someone at the school to say, listen, my child is is sharing with me that they're having this general experience and I'm bringing this up with you to help problem-solve. Not that I'm asking you to step in and do anything right now. I think it's always important to make that caveat. What I'm asking you for is to help me problem-solve. I do not — I'm not comfortable right now having you step in, or my child doesn't want someone to step in yet. And try to get some advice on what kind of things you can do in having that conversation.

Because why is that helpful? In one way, it sensitizes the other adults in the environment that there's something they maybe need to catch in the act. That's a helpful thing. But I think it's — you've got to really talk to your child about what your safety rules are in your household. OK? If you are being hurt or someone in your vicinity is being hurt because of the behavior of some other child, we're going to do something right away. And that's just not a negotiable fact. You're not going to get in trouble because of this. And we will do everything we can to make sure that you're not going to pay a bigger price, but no one should ever be hurt. So if that is occurring, where it's physical, a physical harm, there's something really dangerous, it's going to be uncomfortable. Kids are going to have issues with it. You're going to have to address it right away.

When it's more insidious, when it's things like teasing and verbal forms of bullying, these are things that we take a little more care and we hopefully have the ability to take a little more time to address this with our kids so we don't blow up the situation and make it worse for them. And I think that's part of what we have to have in terms of households. Parents really need to try to take into account what is actually bullying and what is maybe some teasing and more stereotypical age-related behavior.

I appreciated that you said that, Laura, you're talking about your own child and saying, yeah, you know, this was definitely teasing. Teasing that hurts your child's feelings is still something that'll bring out the mama bear, you know, the papa bear in all of us. But I think our culture really goes to bullying as an explanation very quickly, because we don't really want our kids to be tolerating that social stress that comes with being teased or having — making a mistake that maybe is embarrassing, that they all would, that we've all done. And that doesn't mean you're being bullied. It's just — it really sucks when you do something that embarrasses you and other people take notice and they laugh at you and you realize, well, yeah, anyone in their right mind would probably laugh at that. But it doesn't mean you're being bullied. It just means you were embarrassed.

But I think we've got to be careful with that. I spent nearly 20 years in schools and the word "bullying" was used a lot. And I would say that for the number of times it was used, maybe 5 to 7 out of 10 times it was bullying, but there was a significant portion still that was, yeah, it was more stereotypical behavior.

Laura: Like what? Can you give an example of a difference? Something that someone thought was bullying but wasn't actually bullying?

Andy: Yeah. So child's playing kickball during PE and the child goes up and this child's not the most athletic in the world, takes a swing and a miss, misses the ball, lands on their rear end, and everyone laughs at them. The pitcher looks over and goes, "Nice kick, spaz." The kid runs off the field crying and is upset. Now it sucks. That's a terrible....

Laura: It's a bummer.

Andy: That's the basis for all childhood angst in any movie ever produced, right? But in the grand scheme of it, that's a normal, painful childhood experience. So those kind of single-event kind of insult to ego and embarrassment.

Laura: In that example, when does that escalate to bullying? What's the next step that would turn a situation like that to bullying?

Andy: When it becomes a pattern of power differential. Meaning so then every time that child is getting to do some activity, that other child is calling them spaz, teasing them, making fun of them on a regular pattern of behavior. I sort of use the harassment definition. It's a pattern of behavior that is unwelcomed, that is bothersome to the recipients, and is something that is done in, you know, with a negative intent that brings some sort of attention to the one who is bullying. And I think in that situation, it is feeding the need of the child who is showing bullying behavior to do something or treat someone else poorly than single events. It's a pattern of behavior.

Nabil: So I still had the personality that would make someone like a class clown or whatever. But now I'm a disruptive student. Now I'm a bad boy, not a funny boy, you know? So I was fighting every day, not because I wanted to, but because a lot of the time I had to. And, you know, I didn't realize this is only now that, you know, looking back, I understand that, you know, the thing with ADHD is you have a shorter fuse, you know, you're less patient because you're overstimulated.

Laura: Are kids and/or adults with ADHD are more likely to bully others as well, in addition to being more likely to be bullied than other people?

Andy: If we go back to the first sort of part of our conversation, people with ADHD may struggle developing social skills. And one of the things that I think about in early life with a lot of my kids with ADHD is that it's not uncommon to see people choose behaviors that get attention in order to feel good about themselves. In the negative sense, I've known kids who've done things like burping or farting in class intentionally because everybody laughs. And it gets to the point where they don't realize they're laughing at you at this point in time. They're not laughing with you like it's just some generically funny movie scene.

But if you think about it, why do they do that? The behavior they're doing that breaks with the social norm occurs because it's reinforced, meaning it gets the attention of other people. I was very intentional about this. Attention doesn't have to be positive or negative to be reinforcing. Reinforcement is anything that increases the chance of that behavior going on again and again. So bullying behaviors can be very reinforcing if somebody sees you as powerful. If people around you give you privilege or space for being overpowering to other people. Bullying is a behavior that can be learned much in the same way as most any behavior. So I think kids with ADHD who maybe don't always have the ability to do the automatic social norm to meet that norm right out of the gates, are absolutely susceptible to engage in bullying behaviors — just because they may not know the alternative, or they may be seeking the reward of the attention, the laughter, or the power they receive in ways that they can't get in some other more socially appropriate fashion. So it certainly does put them in position.

With regard to the household, I am always cautious about this because one of the worst things that we can do, being in the helping profession, working with a media like this, is to blame parents for anything. And I being a parent, it's always so challenging. But there are parental styles. If a parent is overpowering, if a parent uses their own power in a way that is disrespectful to people around them, they could be teaching children how to bully someone else. So if a parent just says, "I'm making choices because I am the powerful one," or is physically threatening or verbally threatening to others to maintain power and get compliance, that's something that a child is going to learn from. And that child may be more likely to engage in bullying behaviors in their interactions because it is merely modeled in their environment. And it's the closest you're ever going to hear me say that a parent can do something that leads to a child's misbehavior.

Laura: And I'm curious about ADHD in adulthood and if that also can lead to a higher likelihood of being bullied or bullying. And I say that — it's kind of a two-part question. Number one, we talked about the two-thirds rule, the immaturity. Is that done by the time of adulthood? And then the second part of that is maybe there are residuals from childhood, lack of self-esteem from struggling in school, from struggling in social situations, that maybe continue to percolate as adults.

Andy: So on the maturity front, let me handle that piece first.

Laura: Yes. Linear.

Andy: Yes, yes, exactly. I got to be linear, otherwise I'll lose my mind. Here's the thing. Just — and again, use the math as your example here. The two-thirds rule would say a 30-year-old with ADHD is more likely to function like a 20-year-old. And if you asked my wife, she would probably agree with that. I think that there is some aspect of, you know, when you're an adult, the kinds of impulsivity and the kinds of choice making that gets you into trouble or a little more mature, like spending, not paying bills, losing track of appointments, you know, things that as an adult really mimic what you saw in childhood. So the good part of this story is you can still reach an appropriate maturity level as an adult with ADHD.

In fact, really, how old do you have to be when you show adult behavior? You know, today as the norm, I would say to you, adolescence has moved into the mid 20s for many of the people that I've worked with, people who aren't on the ADHD realm or spectrum, so to speak. But I see very commonly people doing at age 25 what maybe I did back at age 18, 19, in terms of responsibilities. So when you reach that maturity level of being like late 20s, early 30s, that's really when you see adult responsibility taking in behavior.

So again, as adults with ADHD, it just may take longer to get there. You're not outgrowing your ADHD, but at that point with maturation, self-awareness, which is the key to so much of this, being able to figure out a way to navigate your life, to meet adult responsibilities. So yeah, you'll get there if you're working on it and if you're focused on it, it's just going to take a little bit more time than it takes somebody without ADHD. So that was part one.

So, part two was asking about sort of adult bullying behavior and things of that nature. You know, the difference in adult life is that bullying roles in adulthood live in a different realm, so to speak. In childhood, you're in school and you're part of a greater social group that doesn't really have a true hierarchy outside of the hierarchy of the social structure, meaning that some kids are just more popular than other kids. Some kids are involved in activities that might have higher value in the culture, like, you know, being the captain of the football team as opposed to the kid who's doing gaming and D&D Club at home with their friends on the weekend. That's just a social sort of hierarchy.

But in adulthood, the bullying behaviors may come more into play in the workplace. So somebody who has a style of bullying behavior, you may see them really seeking roles in their professional life where they can just merely tell other people what to do. And adults with ADHD are just as likely to find themselves targeted by people looking to maintain power differential. Absolutely. The difference, I think, for adults a little bit is adults, when they become aware of their ADHD differences hopefully can put themselves in a position to self-advocate, to say, "Hey, I have this difference. These are the things that I need to be successful in my workplace.".

You know, under ADA, Americans with Disabilities Act, there are lots of places where you can express that difference and get some protection under the law. And I think that that's something that everybody has to make that decision for themselves if they have their diagnosis. You know, am I going to use this for protection? Am I going to tell other people that I have this difference? But yeah, there's definitely the risk of being bullied in adulthood, especially when there's the potential for power differential. You know, if you're not as organized, then you're missing out on parts of your responsibilities. Or you're not hearing what your boss or supervisor is saying with regularity and making common errors. Those are areas in adulthood. You're not going to get leeway. You're not going to keep that job. But if you're in a workplace where you can express that you have a difference, a diagnosis, and get accommodations, you're in a different ballgame.

You know, if you're still not able to successfully do what you need to do with support, that job may be a bad match for you. Office-based sitting on my rear end in front of machines is very challenging for me professionally. I've not done that for the better part of the 25 years I've been in practice, and I'm figuring it out now as an adult. If I'd gotten the job I have today as a 27-year-old, yeah, I probably would have been fired. There's no way I would have been able to do it. You live and you learn and mature. But yeah, putting people in position for success, learning to self-advocate — and not dissimilar, we need kids to learn to self-advocate. But for our children, we need to first help them learn to accept themselves. And then we help them by advocating for them first and then teaching them how to do so for their own adult lives.

Miya: A lot of times for me personally with ADHD, it kind of makes me think — not think less of others, but kind of just think more of myself. So like maybe I said something that hurts my friend and I'm like, either I totally don't remember saying it because I was just like, saying things and not thinking. Or I just, like, really didn't try to think of how it affected them because I was just so in my own world. After my diagnosis, I noticed a lot of things about myself. I found that like, I just need to learn to listen to people more and really put myself in their shoes. And I think that all my friendships has thrived as a result.

Laura: This conversation has somewhat intentionally been kind of a downer. International Bullying Prevention Month. The idea here is that we want to talk about bullying and we want to raise awareness of it — and also about bullying and ADHD in particular and why it can be common. And you talked about self-awareness as being something that's incredibly important. And I have to say that — because I want to have a little bit of a silver lining here, and I have to think back to my last interview with a 16-year-old named Miya. And she was just incredible. She didn't have bullying stories, but she did talk so much about, you know, she was very aware, self-aware, of the things that she was doing that was kind of turning off friends. Like she would interrupt. Or she would say something off the cuff and not think about the consequences. And then vice versa, aware of of how she was perceived and aware of toxicity. And listening to her talk, I know she can't be — it's not fair to make her a representative of an entire generation — it just gave me a lot of hope. Right? That awareness of ADHD and awareness of issues like bullying can help to hopefully minimize the problem.

Andy: For sure. There's always a positive angle here, and I think that when we think about things like what you learned from Miya — self-awareness, and again, self-awareness is a bit of a developmental skill. Young women stereotypically might develop their self-awareness a little bit more rapidly than boys do. I was extremely self-aware. If I had to show you assessment data, for example, of what I looked like at 16 and you compared it to a young woman at 16 with inattentive ADHD, I would pretty much think that I would have had a lot of similarity to the stereotypical female prototype of that diagnosis at that age, which meant I was very self-aware. I had verbal abilities, but I was underachieving. I was getting feedback that was saying, boy, you should be working harder, or you should be more focused. You know, things that were totally disregarding my neurology.

The beauty of this is that learning to be self-aware is a skill that we can help develop. We can do that therapeutically, and we can help kids develop their voice to self-advocate, self-awareness, if at very least, about the information about what their brains are doing differently. They may not need to be completely insightful. It sounds like Miya was pretty insightful.

Laura: Miya was very insightful. Yes, indeed. Self-awareness, right. That's so important. I think about also the awareness of others about ADHD. Right? So that the onus isn't completely on people who have ADHD to change their behavior or hopefully not mask their behavior in order to not be bullied. Right?

Andy: Correct. And I think these are skills we can develop. And I think that managing bullying and helping people with ADHD develop to meet their full potential is at least a twofold endeavor. We need to continue to give good evidence-based information to parents and teachers to break stigmas down so they can understand how their kids are functioning, what they can do at this time, and what they can't do yet.

Laura: Right. Right.

Andy: And learning how to understand that progression can put them on a much more likely path for success. And for when they struggle or fail, it is merely just an example of their process, not some larger negative about them. They failed in an activity. They're not a failure. This is very important language.

And I think, Laura, one of the things that's really important on the bullying front, and you've not said it once, which I'm really thrilled about, is that we never called the kid a bully. We called the behavior bullying. And I think it's incredibly important because all of these behaviors are learned and they can learn alternatives. So teaching your child improved ways to communicate what they need, how to express when they're being mistreated, or when they need someone to stop something, and giving them that practice of how to walk away from those situations. These are things that we can do.

Bullying isn't some dead end of negative childhood or a lifelong experience. It is something unpleasant that many people experience that we need to learn how to address, cope with, and move through. And I think like anything else that's challenging in life. So I'm always looking silver lining and I think there's a ton of it, which is why we have to talk about these things.

Laura: Behavior is communication.

Andy: Exactly.

Laura: Andy, thank you so much for being here with me today. I've learned so much and it's just a pleasure to work with you always. Andy is my work buddy, everybody who's listening. So, Andy, thank you so much.

Andy: Thanks, Laura. It's always fun for me. It's always just a nice conversation. And if part of our conversation can be helpful to other people, that's a great thing for all of us. So thanks so much for inviting me on.

Laura: Thanks everyone for listening, and a special thanks to my ADHD Aha! guests whose voices you heard throughout the show. Peach Perkins, Nabil Abdulrashid, Kenny Friedman, Yasmeen Adams, and Miya Kofo. And of course, a huge thank you to Andy for joining me today and sharing his perspective on the ADHD and bullying problem. Remember, you can help us raise awareness about ADHD and bullying by sharing this episode with your social networks and with family and friends.

You've been listening to "ADHD Aha!" from the Understood Podcast Network. If you want to share your own "aha" moment, email us at I'd love to hear from you. If you want to learn more about the topics we covered today, check out the show notes for this episode. We include more resources as well as links to anything we mentioned in the episode.

Understood as a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. We have no affiliation with pharmaceutical companies. Learn more at "ADHD Aha!" is produced by Jessamine Molli. Say hi, Jessamine.

Jessamine: Hi, everyone.

Laura: Briana Berry is our production director. Our theme music was written by Justin D. Wright, who also mixes the show. For the Understood Podcast Network, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, Seth Melnick is our executive producer, and I'm your host, Laura Key. Thanks so much for listening.


  • Laura Key

    is executive director of editorial at Understood and host of the “ADHD Aha!” podcast.

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