Being Bullied is Never the Fault of the Victim

Jillian Enright

Stop Gaslighting Children

Being bullied is never the responsibility of the victim

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End bullying.(created by author)

Bullying is never the victim's fault

Seems obvious, right? I think most people would agree with this statement if asked. Yet, being humans, what we say and what we do don’t always line up.

I work as an advocate for children — any children who need it, really, but I primarily support neurodivergent children. My son and I are both neurodivergent as well, and I have a background in social work and psychology.

Unfortunately, disabled children are the most frequent victims of bullying. Whereas approximately 25% of non-disabled and neurotypical youth experience bullying, children with disabilities are twice as likely to be victimized.

It’s estimated that 60% of Autistic children and 40% of children with ADHD experience bullying in school.

Why do I feel the need to state the obvious: that it’s not their fault? Although people would be quick to agree with me, their actions say otherwise.

Social skills training

When ADHD and Autistic children are struggling socially at school, one of the first suggestions tends to be social skills clubs or groups, despite the fact there is very little evidence that these are effective.

In order to be effective, they must be implemented in the moment, with gentle guidance and role-modelling provided by caring adults during social interactions. Social skills taught in a clinic or an office do not generalize well to real-life scenarios.

Why are we singling out the victims of bullying for social skills deficits? Aren’t the bullies the ones who need help with social skills?

(Spoiler alert: yes).

I’m not saying that, when done well, Autistic and ADHD children wouldn’t benefit from social skills support.

What I am saying is we’re putting the onus on them to change in order to avoid being bullied, rather than protecting them from the bullies and helping the bullying perpetrator build their social skills as well.

Why are we singling out the victims of bullying for social skills deficits? Aren’t the bullies the ones who need help with social skills?

Research says yes. Studies have shown that getting to know people with disabilities, learning about their experiences, and simply spending time with them improves people’s perceptions and reduces bullying.

The best way to prevent bullying is to facilitate positive social interactions and educate the would-be bullies. Instead, we are often removing and isolating Autistic and ADHD students, sending the message to them and to others that they’re the problem simply because they’re different.

Harmful messages being sent

How does that teach anyone acceptance and celebration of differences? The bystanders and classmates are also learning some powerful lessons here: if you get bullied, you’re the one who needs to change. If children with disabilities are bullied, it’s because they are different and they need to be less different.

If a child is bullied and the response is to send them to a social skills group, or teach them how to behave differently in order to avoid being bullied, then we’re essentially gaslighting the victim rather than protecting them and educating the perpetrators and bystanders.

You just have to not be yourself, then you won’t be bullied, okay Timmy?”

I’m not faulting the children who are bullying either. Most perpetrators have also been victims of bullying, either at school, home, or in other contexts in their lives. Perpetrators have experienced higher rates of child abuse and neglect in their family histories compared to children who do not bully others.

Not intervening is condoning

As always, it’s us — the grown-ups, with life experience fully developed brains — who need to change, not the children.

When I was a child, many adults saw me being relentlessly and ruthlessly bullied on a daily basis and did nothing. This was 20 years ago when there was little awareness of the severe impact this has on children’s mental health, but this is no longer the case.

We now know a great deal about the extensive, long-term negative impacts bullying has on people, which persist into adulthood. Risks include an increased prevalence of depression, anxiety disorders, and suicidality.

Children who are bullied also have an increased risk of low self-concept, poor self-image, eating disorders, as well as relationship and trust issues. More generally, children involved with bullying (both victims and perpetrators) have greater emotional and behavioural problems when compared with their non-involved peers.

Stop gaslighting children

If a child tells you they are being bullied:

  • Above all else, believe them, and take them seriously.
  • Listen and validate their experience, do not question their version of events.
  • Make clear it is not their fault, you will help them, and then follow through.

Do not:

  • Ask what they did to “bring it on”.
  • Minimize or downplay their experience, or challenge their version of events.
  • Refer them to social skills support while doing nothing to intervene and help the perpetrator.

I don’t care if the child’s behaviours are considered disruptive or “annoying”, they do not deserve to be bullied: bullying is emotional, psychological, and sometimes physical abuse. Regardless of how “weird” they might be, no one deserves that.

Don’t send the message to children that they have to be like everyone else in order to avoid bullying. Teach children to embrace and celebrate differences, and to get to know people who are different from themselves.

Role-model and create the expectation that we don’t have to like all of our peers, we don’t have to befriend every single student in our school, but we are expected to show basic human decency, respect, and kindness.

It starts and ends with us.

© Jillian Enright, ADHD 2e MB

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Bullying help

I have compiled an extensive list of bullying prevention and help resources on my website.

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References

Arseneault L. (2017). The long-term impact of bullying victimization on mental health. World psychiatry : official journal of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA), 16(1), 27–28. https://doi.org/10.1002/wps.20399

Arslan, G., Allen, KA. & Tanhan, A. (2021). School Bullying, Mental Health, and Wellbeing in Adolescents: Mediating Impact of Positive Psychological Orientations. Child Indicators Research 14, 1007–1026 https://doi.org/10.1007/s12187-020-09780-2

Cook, A., Ogden, J., & Winstone, N. (2020). The effect of school exposure and personal contact on attitudes towards bullying and autism in schools: A cohort study with a control group. Autism : the international journal of research and practice, 24(8), 2178–2189. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361320937088

deLara, E.W. (2019). Consequences of Childhood Bullying on Mental Health and Relationships for Young Adults. Journal of Child and Family Studies 28, 2379–2389. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10826-018-1197-y

Kennedy, R. S. (2021). Bully-Victims: An Analysis of Subtypes and Risk Characteristics. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 36(11–12), 5401–5421. https://doi.org/10.1177/0886260517741213

Lung, F. W., Shu, B. C., Chiang, T. L., & Lin, S. J. (2019). Prevalence of bullying and perceived happiness in adolescents with learning disability, intellectual disability, ADHD, and autism spectrum disorder: In the Taiwan Birth Cohort Pilot Study. Medicine, 98(6), e14483. https://doi.org/10.1097/MD.0000000000014483

Mikami, A.Y., Smit, S. & Khalis, A. (2017). Social Skills Training and ADHD — What Works?. Current Psychiatry Reports 19, 93. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11920-017-0850-2

Morris, S., Sheen, J., Ling, M., Foley, D., & Sciberras, E. (2021). Interventions for Adolescents With ADHD to Improve Peer Social Functioning: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Journal of Attention Disorders, 25(10), 1479–1496. https://doi.org/10.1177/1087054720906514

Nocentini, A., Fiorentini, G., Di Paola, L., Menesini, E. (2019). Parents, family characteristics and bullying behavior: A systematic review. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 45, 41–50. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.avb.2018.07.010

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Neurodivergent. 20+ years social work and psychology experience. I write about mental health, neurodiversity, advocacy, education, and parenting. Founder of ADHD 2e MB. CYW, BA Psychology.

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