How Behavioral Characteristics of ADHD are Related to Bullying and Victimization

Teen punching himself

Prevalence of ADHD in Bullies and Victims

In an attempt to better understand the connection between the widespread phenomenon of bullying and participants’ mental health, Unnever & Cornell (2003) examined the relationship between bullying, self-control, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). The researchers cited previous studies reported by Swedish psychologist Dan Olweus indicating that victims of adolescent bullying more often report depression and low-self esteem into adulthood (Olweus, 1993) and that bullies are more likely than their peers to engage in criminal behaviors as they mature into adulthood (Olweus, 1999). Thus the long-term effects of bullying negatively impact both bullies and their victims. Unnever & Cornell (2003) hypothesized that certain behavioral characteristics, such as those often present in children with an ADHD diagnosis, may make a child more vulnerable to both bullying and peer victimization. They also cite a study conducted in Finland by Kumpulainen, Rasanen, & Puura (2001) that reported ADHD, characterized by inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity, was the most prevalent mental disorder diagnosed in both bullies and victims. 


Spotlight on Impulsivity

Since impulsivity is known to be a psychological correlate of both bullying and ADHD (Olweus, 1993; Barkely, 1998), the investigators decided to examine it (impulsivity) specifically (Unnever & Cornell, 2003). Low self-control is characterized as a construct of impulsivity, thereby making children with an ADHD diagnosis more susceptible to behavioral manifestations that demonstrate inhibited self-control, such as aggression. In an attempt to clarify the relationships existing among bullying, ADHD, and self-control, Unnever and Cornell surveyed a sample of students drawn from six public schools in Roanoke, Virginia. Teachers administered to students in this study an anonymous survey with questions aimed at understanding bullying/victimization, ADHD status, and self-control. An adaptation of Olweus’ Bully/Victim Questionnaire was used, as well as a self-control scale developed by Grasmick, Tittle, Bursik, and Arnekleve (1993).


Likelihood of Bullying and of Being Victimized

Research results indicated that students taking medication for ADHD had low levels of reported self-control (Unnever & Cornell, 2003). Further, a strong relationship was demonstrated between reported levels of low self-control and bullying behaviors. Approximately 13% of students on medication for ADHD reported bullying a couple of times per month, in contrast to their peers, 8% of whom reported the same rate of bullying. Conversely, low self-control was not related to peer victimization, even though 34% of students on medication for ADHD reported being victimized a couple of times per month, as compared to their peers at 22%. Thus, symptoms of ADHD, independent of low self-control, are likely connected to increased vulnerability to victimization.





Barkley, R. A. (1998). Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: A handbook for diagnosis and treatment (2nd ed.). New York: Guilford.


Grasmick, H. C., Tittle, C. R., Bursik, R. J., Jr., & Arnekleve, B. J. (1993). Testing the core empirical implications of Gottfredson and Hirschi’s general theory of crime. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 30, 5-29.


Kumpulainen, K., Rasanen, E., & Puura, K. (2001). Psychiatric disorders and the use of mental health services among children involved in bullying. Aggressive Behavior, 27: 102-110.


Olweus, D. (1993). Bullying at school. Cambridge: Blackwell.


Olweus, D., Limber,S., & Mihalic,S.F. (1999). Blueprints for violence prevention, book nine: Bullying prevention program. Boulder, CO: Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence.


Unnever, J. & Cornell, D., (2003). Bullying, self-control, and ADHD. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 18(2): 129-147.



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