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Bullying, learning differences, and how to help

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Bullying is a tough topic for anyone to talk about. But for kids who learn and think differently, it can be even tougher. They’re more likely to be bullied than their peers. And it’s common for kids who are bullied to react by bullying others. So what can families do about bullying? 

In this episode, hosts Gretchen Vierstra and Rachel Bozek get advice from Ellen Braaten, child psychologist and Understood expert. Listen in to learn how to tell the difference between teasing and bullying. Find out what to do if your child is being bullied. Get Ellen’s tips for helping kids talk about bullying — and stand up for themselves — even when they’d rather not stand out.

Episode transcript

Gretchen: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "In It," a podcast about the ins and outs…

Rachel: …the ups and downs.

Gretchen: …of supporting kids who learn and think differently. I'm Gretchen Vierstra, a former classroom teacher and an editor here at Understood.

Rachel: And I'm Rachel Bozek, a writer and editor raising two kids with ADHD. Today, we're talking about bullying, which is not an easy topic.

Gretchen: No, it isn't. It's quite painful for kids and for the people who care for them.

Rachel: Yeah. And Gretchen, as you know, we put out a call to all of our various networks looking for a family, willing to share their story of how they dealt with a situation involving bullying. And while some people responded to us privately, none of them wanted to speak about it in a public way. And I totally get that.

Gretchen: Yeah, I totally get that, too. I mean, there's a lot of shame and stigma associated with being bullied, and so it's hard to want to share that with the world, right? And then for families who have kids who were bullied or were the bully, they can sometimes feel just terrible that they missed this or that they should have been there, or they should have known about this from the start, and they didn't. And it can feel really terrible for families.

Rachel: Fortunately, we have someone here today who's helped a lot of families navigate this tricky terrain.

Gretchen: Yup. Ellen Braaten is the executive director of the Learning and Emotional Assessment Program at Mass General Hospital, and she's a psychology professor at Harvard Medical School.

Rachel: She's written lots of books and has a new one on the way called "Bright Kids Who Couldn't Care Less: How to Rekindle Your Child's Motivation." She's also an Understood expert.

Gretchen: We've had her on the podcast before and we are so happy to have her here again. Ellen, welcome back to "In It."

Ellen: I'm so happy to be here.

Gretchen: We're happy to have you. And as you know, today we are talking about bullying. And so, to start, I'd love it if you could define for us what bullying is and what makes it different from, say, teasing, which of course, is not great but is handled somewhat differently.

Ellen: Great question to start with. I think the two things we have to think about when we're thinking about bullying is power and amount or that it's something that's not a one-time thing. It's chronic. So, what do I mean when I'm thinking when I'm saying power? It means that there's something within the relationship where there's either real power, like, for example, a child might be the captain of the basketball team and so is in a powerful position where they could, you know, do something to somebody else on the team, that means more than just the teammates.

And I should say, too, that, you know, when there's a power differential in the relationship, it can be something that's even just perceived. It can be, "Oh, I think that kid is cool" or it's an older child or even just a physically bigger child. Any of those things can be perceived by another child as being powerful. And it also has to be something that happens, like I said, more than just once.

Now, teasing is a little bit different because teasing is actually a way of communicating. And sometimes it's not so bad. Sometimes it's really a way of us being social. It's a social exchange. So, for example, a child might have a little bit of a crush on a schoolmate, and somebody might tease them. "Oh, you like Brandon?" That's teasing. That's, it's communicating something. It might not be perceived as funny for the person, but it is done in a way where they're trying to make a social connection. So, not all teasing is bad, but all bullying is pretty much bad.

Gretchen: OK, so, then when it becomes a little more persistent.

Ellen: Exactly. Exactly. And it can be confusing for parents, too, because, you know, if they hear about a bad incident on the bus, they might think, "Oh, my gosh, my child is being bullied," and if it only happened once, it's just a bad incident that needs to be taken care of. But bullying is much more insidious. It's over and over again. So, it really, it can be something that really wears down on a child's self-esteem if they're the victim of bullying.

Rachel: Can you talk us through why this topic may be of particular concern for families with kids who learn and think differently? Are those kids more likely to be bullied or to engage in bullying behavior?

Ellen: Yes. So, the short answer to your question is, yes, they are. Now, we don't have a ton of research on this, so I don't want to go over and above what we know. But there does seem to be a relationship between bullying and having learning and thinking differences. One reason that might occur is because a lot of kids with learning and thinking differences have some differences in how they develop social skills. Like, for example, if you're a child with processing speed, slower processing speed, you're more at risk for having social difficulties, not because necessarily you have problems understanding, but because you have problems understanding in a time frame. So, that's one example.

Or kids with ADHD who might be impulsive and so might get into trouble and then might sort of be a target for other kids. And then also, if you're not feeling as competent academically, so let's say you're a second grader and you're not reading, you know, at grade level and your teacher calls on you to read something and you can't read it competently. You know, it's sort of like a mark that other kids might — especially other kids who aren't competent themselves — might perceive as being something that they could pick on a child for.

Gretchen: Yeah. So, at the risk of asking what may seem like an obvious question, why is bullying such a big deal? And are there long-term consequences?

Ellen: Yeah, well, it is a big deal, and it's because there are long-term consequences. So, what happens when we're bullied is a child starts to try and figure out "Why is this happening to me? " And kids don't usually figure out, "Well, that other child has problems of his own" or "Those children are acting inappropriately." But what a child typically almost always thinks is "There's something wrong with me." And those sorts of feelings lead to heightened anxiety, it leads to difficulties concentrating at school because they're always afraid of something happening.

But there are long-term consequences, too. And anyone who's been bullied in school and chronically bullied still feels that as they move into adulthood; it can really plague someone for quite a long time because they don't understand.

And part of it is there really isn't an easy way to understand this. It is one of those things that is not clearly, you know, there are lots of reasons why people become bullies. And it's never because a person deserves to be bullied. But that's almost never how somebody perceives it, kids especially think "What did I do wrong? There's something wrong with me and I feel unprotected." And then to go out in the world feeling like you're not good enough and unprotected is a very scary thing.

Gretchen: Mm hmm.

Rachel: So, I get why kids with learning and thinking differences may be disproportionately targeted from some of the things we're talking about and also some of the things that I've seen with my kids in school. But can you talk a little bit about why kids with learning differences may also be more easily drawn into engaging in bullying behavior, which you mentioned, but can you tell us a little more about that part?

Ellen: Yeah, so there are a couple of reasons for that. Sometimes when, you know, the development of social skills are where they should be in terms of age-appropriate social skills, you tend to go with what everybody else does. You want to fit in desperately. You're in a situation where other people are bullying and you then just join in because it's hard for you to know the difference. Sometimes kids with ADHD just impulsively join into bullying because they don't have that ability to sort of stop and think and they wind up doing something that they really regret later. But they did it because it was in the moment everybody else was doing it.

Another reason is like we were talking before, when you're feeling not great about yourself and you see someone else who's struggling, it can give you just that little bit of feeling like, "Oh, you know, I don't feel great about myself, but I feel better than this person." And so, that's another reason why they're vulnerable to experiencing that. And then also, there's just a simple fact that when we experience something, we learn how it's done, and so we learn to do it.

And most of the time, kids, you know, find themselves in a situation where they've been a bully, not really knowing how they got into that situation. And it takes a while to then figure out, you know, how to solve the problem for them and to make sure it doesn't happen again.

Gretchen: Ellen, we know that when kids are being bullied, they might not even tell us. And that could be because they feel shame or embarrassment, or they might even fear that telling someone who will then tell someone else will make it worse for them. So, are there signs we can be on the lookout for, so we don't miss something like this?

Ellen: So, there are some obvious signs, of course, things, and one of the things that parents never really necessarily think about are things that have gone missing. So, a child has a pair of headphones, a backpack, something cool that they got for Christmas that's not there anymore. Any kind of unexplained bruises, cuts, anything like that, of course, is something to pay attention to.

Having few friends, friends they had before and don't have now, a child who doesn't want to go to school. And that could be hard sometimes for parents, because if you've got a child with learning and thinking differences, sometimes they don't love school anyway.

Gretchen: Right.

Ellen: But if that seems like it's gotten worse, for example. Kids who make up reasons to not go to school or make up reasons to not go to basketball practice or be in a certain carpool. And then the obvious signs of like, you know, not sleeping, not eating right, anxiety, but like I started with, one of the big tells is kids who, you know, lost their lunchbox, lost something that was precious to them.

So, the other issue, too, that you have to be aware of is cyberbullying. And in that case, you want to be checking whether or not your child is obsessively checking the phone, obsessively on social media or not checking it at all. So, any big change in behavior around any of those things is important to note.

Rachel: Right. OK. So, say you pick up on some of those clues and so you check in with your child and they let you know that they are actually caught up in some kind of bullying situation. Now, what? Can you walk parents through the steps they should take?

Ellen: Yeah. So, the first thing they want to do is to get information. So, they want to listen to their child, ask a lot of questions if their child's not forthcoming, ask questions of the teacher, other parents. If it's really the situation where you really feel like this is bullying — not just teasing, but it's something that's really significant — you want to write it down, make sure you've got the story as best as you can, organized in your own head.

You're not as a parent responsible to be a detective, but you want to make sure you know you've helped your child make the story coherent or you've made it that way. Because when you're the victim of bullying or experience any sort of trauma, the one thing about your story is, is that disconnected, overwhelmed with feelings, it's hard for you to describe it. So, it can be really important then for a parent to organize that.

Want to also make sure that you review the school's anti-bullying policy, so you know what the school is going to do as well. And then if you feel like this really is or even if you're just worried or suspect it is, bring the report to the school, then you want to make sure you're monitoring the school's response. You sort of take it up the chain of command. And if you're really in a situation and I've been in many situations like this as a psychologist, either on one side or the other, you can get legal help.

You can, you know, if it's happening where you feel like your child is not protected, you can get legal help. I never feel like that's the best place to start. And some parents do, you know, like whether it's getting an IEP for reading or getting protection from bullying, to bring in the lawyer on the first appointment isn't usually the best way to start a collaborative situation.

Now, having said that, if you really think your child is in danger, definitely that is priority number one. But, you know, along the way, you can also, you know, if the bullying is happening in the class, definitely meet with the teacher, you know, ask the principal to join in if you feel like they're supportive.

Gretchen: And so, here's the opposite of a bringing in your lawyer to the school, right? Is it ever a good idea to tell your child to ignore the bullying?

Ellen: Well, I wouldn't say ignore the bullying, but I would say you could teach your child to have some strategies to deal with the bullying. You know, as a parent, let's say you were in a school situation where you really feel like, you know, the other kids, you know their parents, you know your child.

Like sometimes you might have a child who's a little bit overly sensitive to teasing, and this happens a lot where, you know, a child is really being teased in, actually, a typical way but is perceiving it as bullying. In that case, it's not that I would say necessarily ignore it, but how can we help you figure out a way to manage your feelings about this?

You know, there are lots of ways to deal with being bullied. And one of those ways is to figure out, like, how do we not react to inappropriate behavior? Because that's basically what it is, somebody acting inappropriately to you. So, what one of those ways is to, you know, not overreact, walk away. Teach your child sort of a kind of a brief, non-confrontational, verbal response to the bully and practice that at home, too. Like, "What would you say if somebody did this?"

One thing that stops a lot of behaviors is indifference. So, if you can sort of teach your child to be a bit indifferent to what somebody says, yeah, whatever, that's like the best thing to do. It's also one of the hardest things to do. But things like that, like, you know, how would it feel to just say, "Yeah, whatever" and walk away?

You want to also make sure your child's got a lot of, you know, knowledge about themselves, about their strengths, any sort of, you know, areas of difference and be able to own some of that and not, you know, we're more vulnerable when we feel vulnerable about our weaknesses. And so, if you can make sure your child is like, "Yeah, you know, reading is a little bit tougher for me than it is for other kids. So what?"

Gretchen: Mm hmm.

Ellen: That can be helpful, too. That's where bullying can sort of pinpoint one little part of someone's personality. Just, you know, the fact that they're not good in hockey or they're not a good reader. A lot of times that's where bullying starts. And so, you want to make sure that that doesn't define who your child is and you help them shift their focus onto the things that they're really good at doing. Yeah.

Rachel: So, here's a question. What if your kid has an IEP and they're being bullied at school? Does that change the situation or are there specific requirements that the school has because of the IEP?

Ellen: Yeah, definitely. If social skills is an area of growth and a goal for your child on the IEP, which oftentimes, not always, but oftentimes if your child is being bullied, there's the opportunity to either add that to the IEP or to make sure that the IEP goals are being followed. So, what kind of goals would that be? Well, it would be things like social skills training, interpersonal skill building, doing things in this could be as part of a goal, increasing self-advocacy so that a child knows "When do I say stop? When do I walk away? When do I seek the assistance of an adult that's near me?"

The goal in an IEP shouldn't be to make a child less teasable. It should be to make a child more self-aware and to develop coping skills. Also, for some kids, knowing the difference between sort of like tattling and because tattling when it's inappropriate can also make you more of a target for bullying.

Gretchen: Right.

Ellen: As well as identifying the difference, again, between sort of playful teasing and hurtful teasing and bullying. And then sometimes in IEPs, you can have just very simple goals, like having some sort of a signal system to use when a child needs an adult intervention or a friend intervention or having somebody who is really available, somebody on the school staff who can help the child make reports or who the child can check in with once or twice a week. So, all of those can be part of an IEP and are, you know, ways to prevent bullying and make a child more proactive.

Gretchen: You know, those are good tips to think about for families and schools about ways that the IEP can really support, right? The kid in the situation.

Ellen: And you know, I should mention too that there's the other side of this too, like a child who is a bully might have an IEP as well. Some of their goals might be sort of on the other side of it. "When is my behavior being inappropriate? What happens when I act this way?" So, there can be both sides. But definitely being bullied, being a bully, can all be part of a child's IEP and areas of social-emotional growth.

Gretchen: So, probably most everyone listening to this right now has seen posters at their kid's school about, you know, don't be the bully or about just bullying awareness, what to do in this situation. And we've got Anti-Bullying Month, which is right now in October. So, have we gotten any better at preventing and disrupting bullying in our schools?

Ellen: I don't know if that's really the case. I feel like people are much more aware of bullying. So, that, of course, is going to help. We do know that cyberbullying has gotten worse because it didn't exist before. So, the stakes are much higher than they were. So, even though I'm talking like I feel like an old person talking about how when "Back in my day..."

Gretchen: Right?

Ellen: But in this day, the stakes are much higher. They last forever. But the possibility of educating your child is also higher, too, because the bad part about social media is that it's out there. The good part is that we can control it. We can mute. We can turn it off. We do not have to engage in this. And, you know, even if you've been the target of something on social media, if you just ignore it, it's just, it will go away. Or the adults, if it's really bad, will take care of it. You know, it's also easier to prove that it's happening as well. So, it's tough, though. It's really tough being a kid these days with this managing how all but all this means.

Gretchen: Yeah, I think one of the big differences with just the tech stuff with kids is just that it makes it, I feel like it escalates things, like things move more quickly than they did. I'll say back in the day when I was a kid and like the girls might have been like passing notes, and the notes took a long time to write and then you had to pass it along and then like, you know what I mean? So, like, the escalation didn't happen as quickly as it does now because everything is just a matter of seconds on a phone.

Ellen: Absolutely. And you know, back to why kids with learning and thinking differences are more vulnerable is, that's one reason, is that oftentimes kids with learning and thinking differences take a longer time to process something. That's a really good thing in a lot of ways. But when you're, when things are happening really fast and it takes you a little bit longer to read something or interpret something or understand the meaning of it, you are more vulnerable then to being confused by something or a victim of something.

So, yeah, I think this time now in terms of how bullying can occur does make the kids that, you know, my favorite kids that we're talking about are much more vulnerable to situations that, you know, are difficult for them to interpret and cope with.

Rachel: So, are there resources that you can recommend to families or others who are dealing with a bullying situation, who aren't sure how to handle it really kind of from either side? Where can they go for some additional tips or suggestions?

Ellen: Well, Understood has a lot of content on this and I think it's a great resource for parents. There's also the new Wunder app, which is fairly new. And I am on the Wunder app; I have a group called Focus and Social Skills, so I would love to hear from you and answer questions and get ideas about what kinds of topics you might want me to talk about. But sometimes the best place to get advice is from other parents who've gone through the same thing.

So, that's kind of the beauty of the Wunder app is you'll be conversing with other parents who have gone through similar situations. And then, the other thing that I would recommend is if you're really worried about this, that something is becoming chronic, you're concerned about your child's mental health more than just like always really down about this situation, but I'm really worried that he's depressed or anxious, seek counseling. It can be very helpful in situations like this.

And oftentimes I'm so surprised how just a few sessions of therapy can turn this whole thing around. So don't feel like, "Oh, I'm consulting with a psychiatrist or psychologist. It's going to take forever." Now, you know, sometimes it is indicative of a bigger problem, but oftentimes it's not. It's a situation that can really be an avenue for change and understanding.

Gretchen: Well, Ellen, I think we've covered a lot today, and I want to thank you for joining us on "In It" to talk about such an important topic.

Ellen: I was so happy to be here and it is an important topic and I just enjoyed this so much.

Rachel: Thank you so much. It was great talking with you.

Gretchen: So, as Ellen told us, you can find her in the Wunder app, which I want to tell you about it, because it's kind of great. It's a new app that Understood created for parents raising kids who learn and think differently. And it's a community app. So, the idea is that you get in there and you talk with other parents about what you're going through, and you can even join topic-based groups.

And so, as Ellen said, she hosts a group about focus and social skills. But there are lots of other groups you can join, like there's ones about ADHD, dyslexia, so we totally recommend that you check it out. So, Rachel, what did you think of this conversation with Ellen?

Rachel: I found it so helpful. You know, I know this is a raw and painful topic for a lot of people, myself included. And I really appreciated her kind of, providing that framework for us to understand that it's never a kid's fault when they're the target of bullying and even when they are the one engaging in the bullying behavior in this situation.

And, you know, we know that there could be something going on in kids' lives that kind of lead to either of these things happening. And it is just so helpful to have some resources and ideas of where to turn to learn more about this because we know that sometimes this kind of stuff comes up when we least expect it.

Gretchen: Yeah, listening to Ellen and some of the things that she shared also just reminded me that this is sort of an issue that lots of families deal with. And so, you know, we're not alone in this and we shouldn't feel alone. So, I'm so glad that Ellen came on to talk with us about it.

Rachel: I am, too.

Gretchen: You've been listening to "In It" from the Understood Podcast Network.

Rachel: This show is for you. So, we want to make sure you're getting what you need. Email us at to share your thoughts. We love hearing from you.

Gretchen: 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.

Rachel: is a resource dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. Learn more at

Gretchen: "In It" is produced by Julie Subrin. Briana Berry is our production director. Justin D. Wright mixes the show. Mike Errico wrote our theme music.

Rachel: For the Understood Podcast Network, Laura Key is our editorial director. Scott Cocchiere is our creative director and Seth Melnick is our executive producer. Thanks for listening.

Gretchen: And thanks for always being in it with us.


  • Gretchen Vierstra, MA

    is the managing editor at Understood and co-host of the “In It” podcast. She’s a former educator with experience teaching and designing programs in schools, organizations, and online learning spaces.

    • Rachel Bozek

      is co-host of the “In It” podcast and the parent of two kids with ADHD. She has a background in writing and editing content for kids and parents. 

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