University of Gothenburg
group of kids bullying classmate isolated in white
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Jakob Åsberg Johnel's latest blog entry

[Posted on 26 June, 2019 by Jakob Åsberg Johnels]

People mess with each other all the time. Everywhere from your typical workplace to the retirement home, there are people who fight, grope, insult, demean, shove and ostracise others, or spread nasty rumours meant to inflict harm. Bullying is a particularly vile variation on this theme. Bullying is commonly defined as “when one or more people, at repeated occasions and over a prolonged period of time, say or do demeaning and unpleasant things to someone who is not in any position to defend themselves” (Olweus, 1999). There are three aspects of this definition that differentiate bullying from other kinds of conflicts: the repeated nature of it, the unpleasant/demeaning aspect, and the presence of a power imbalance. In this short blogpost my aim is to present some of the research on bullying, focusing on school-aged children with neuropsychiatric disorders (NPD’s) like ADHD and autism. What are the causes of bullying? And (how) can we stop it?

There seems to be (at least) two different “categories” of children who subject others to bullying, in the sense that these groups are driven – at least in part – by different things.

The first “category” consists of children who not only bully others but are also themselves victims of bullying; these individuals are referred to as “bully/victims”. The available research portrays these children as socially “clumsy” and impulsive compared to their peers, and prone to ending up in various conflicts with not only other children but parents and teachers as well. Kids in this group often struggle with stress, anger and frustration over social and other failings.

The research we have – which is surprisingly limited – has shown that ADHD is a risk factor for this type of behaviour (e.g. Unnever & Cornell, 2003). Children with autism, on the other hand, tend to only be victims of bullying, although some of them also become bullies or end up in the role of “bully/victim”, perhaps especially those with concurrent ADHD problems (Montes & Halterman, 2007).

Those of us who work with families and children with NPD’s know what a devastating effect bullying can have on many people, and how taxing it can be for the families involved, no matter which side of the story they are on. In my experience, regular ADHD and autism adjustments at school can go a long way towards challenging behaviours and involvement in this kind of unconsidered bullying. Examples of such adjustments include effective collaboration between the child’s school and home environment; giving the child suitable and reasonable demands; providing time and space for recovery; providing focused support for basic skills like reading and counting to those who need it and making preparations and schedules in order to make schoolwork, transitions, recess activities and unscheduled activities easier to manage and less stressful.

Another “category” of people who bully others are not victims themselves. Research has shown that individuals in this group display some of the Machiavellian traits that people – including children – sometimes possess. According to empirical studies, kids in this group crave respect and status far more than their peers typically do. One theory (Salmivalli, 2010) thus argues that some children bully others neither “unintentionally” nor for the sake of hurting them, but as a strategic measure aimed at gaining status and power. Unfortunately, there is plenty of evidence to support that this is indeed a very effective strategy in many cases.

Bullying often occurs in front of an “audience”, i.e. other children, and this is an aspect that clearly makes sense if status attainment is the primary goal. This group aspect is also a well-known risk in the sense that it diffuses and deflects responsibility, i.e. the classic “it wasn’t just me…” defence. On the other hand, the group perspective is completely central to understanding what drives people to bullying. Without any social environment to reward these kids with the status they crave, their primary motivation for bullying disappears. This in turn also means that group processes might become more central to reduce bullying and its effects.

The Finnish anti-bullying program KiVa ( aims to make all children more aware of the “social psychology” of bullying and for everyone in class to have a “role” in any situation where bullying might occur. The fundamental basis for this method is that children do not like when bullying takes place. Using different games and dramatic exercises, everyone gets a chance to see what it is like to be in each role, and how different behaviours can affect the likelihood of harassment and bullying either continuing or ceasing. After all, what happens if no one laughs when the bully says something mean to someone? And what about if someone else stands up to the bully (however meekly)? By now there is quite a lot of evidence suggesting that the KiVa programme effectively reduces bullying.

Children with NPD’s – perhaps especially those diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders – are sometimes subjected to severe bullying at school. In these cases, one might consider moving them from their “regular” class to one where they can avoid “socially competent” bullies who take every opportunity to make fun of them. Unfortunately, I do not know of any systematic Swedish research on this particular topic, but an English study (Rowley et al., 2012) found that this sort of situation is likely highly complex. Children with mild autism (perhaps even only what we sometimes call “autistic traits”) were especially likely to be bullied in regular classrooms, but fared much better in special needs classes/units for children with NPD’s. However, children with more severe autism were just as beleaguered in special needs classes as they were in regular classrooms. One interpretation of this is that children with mild autism are considered “normal enough” to serve as “pawns” in the power struggles of their peers. In my experience, this is indeed often the case. Another sensitive issue this raises – which has not been addressed in previous research – is the question of who is bullying the children with severe autism in the special needs classes. Might it be (certain) other relatively high-functioning kids with autism?

Much of what I have written here might not align with our perception of children as “innocent”. However, I believe we must aim to get to the bottom of these things, undeterred by potentially uncomfortable facts – the less we focus on moralising and the more we concentrate on effectively studying the dynamics of bullying, the better. Children are – just like all people – complex, capable of both good and bad actions. We are also all affected by the circumstances we find ourselves in. I hope I have managed to show that we must both be aware of neuropsychiatric vulnerability and understand group processes in school environments in order to improve the situation for children and adolescents with (and without) NPD’s. And that much more research is needed in order to understand these complex interactions.

[This is a blog. The purpose of the blog is to provide information and raise awareness concerning important issues. All views and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not necessarily shared by the GNC.]