Helping Kids with Learning Disorders Deal with Cyberbullying

By Dr. Mary Rooney, Ph.D.

Cyberbullying has become an increasingly serious issue in recent years as digital devices have become more accessible to kids and teens. In fact, by the time children are in high school, very few bullying incidents happen only in-person, with most involving at least some online interaction.

Cyberbullying is similar to traditional bullying and has been defined as a person or group intentionally using digital media to threaten, harass, or intimidate someone.1 It can occur via any social online platform, including social media, blog sites, chat groups, and video chats (Zoom, Facetime, etc.), as well as videogame platforms, texting, and traditional phone calls. Not surprisingly, concerns about cyberbullying have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, with kids and teens spending more time online for both school and social activities.  

Studies have shown that kids and teens with learning disorders and/or ADHD are at especially high risk for all forms of bullying, including cyberbullying.2,3 This increased risk appears to be tied to feelings of low self-esteem, loneliness, underdeveloped social skills, and difficulty reading social cues. As is the case with so many aspects of parenting a child or teen with a learning disorder or ADHD, you are your child’s best advocate and source of support when it comes to cyberbullying.

  • Be on the lookout for signs of cyberbullying. Kids and teens who are victims of cyberbullying are likely to become more withdrawn, depressed, or irritable, and will sometimes have changes in their sleep or eating habits (either sleeping and eating more or sleeping and eating less than usual). If the bully is someone in their friend group, they may suddenly stop interacting with certain friends in-person or online (including social media or gaming interactions).
  • Monitor your child or teen’s social media use. Every parent has their own approach to social media monitoring, with some parents closely observing their child’s social media activities and others taking a completely off-hands approach. While there isn’t a one-size-fits all approach to social media monitoring, and there are pros and cons to every strategy, every parent should at the very least know exactly how their child or teen is using their devices to interact with friends and peers.

    This means that even if you don’t see the content of your child’s online interactions, you know exactly which apps they are using, how these apps work, and how much time your child is spending on each app every day or every week. Every parent should also be aware of how frequently your child is texting, and ideally, who they are texting with. Sudden changes in your child’s social media app use or texting patterns may be an indicator of social withdrawal or avoidance that could be a result of cyberbullying.   
  • Build up your child’s strengths and social support. Kids with strong self-esteem and social support are less likely to be bullying victims. Give your child as many opportunities as possible to develop their non-academic strengths and carve out time for them to have fun using these skills. Also help facilitate opportunities for positive social opportunities with their friends via virtual hangouts or socially distanced in person interactions. Lastly, remember that family social support is hugely important to your child and teen (even if your teen denies it!). Carve out fun family time and create new family routines and traditions that will help remind your child that even when they feel like they don’t fit in among their peers, they will always fit in at home.
  • If you suspect cyberbullying, start with a calm conversation. If you suspect that your child may be experiencing cyberbullying, talk to them about it. Ask open-ended questions, try to get as many details as you can, and keep the focus on listening and information-gathering. Avoid problem-solving during the initial conversation. If your child or teen will not open up to you, then schedule an appointment with the school counselor or your child’s therapist. Whether your child talks to you or to another trusted adult, let them know that you are proud of them for talking about this difficult topic.
  • Work with your child’s school. If your child is being bullied by a school peer, as is most often the case, work closely with your child’s school. Start by having a calm conversation with the school administrator and/or school counselor about the details you have learned from your child. It will take time for the school to investigate the situation, but in the meantime, they can work with you and your child to make sure your child feels safe, supported, and heard. For additional tips for talking with your child’s school, check out this brief guide from the experts at Bridgewater University’s Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center.

No one can fully prevent a child or teen from experiencing cyberbullying, but you can help your child become more resilient by building up their strengths and social support and by intervening quickly if a bullying incident occurs. Cyberbullying is serious, and it’s not something that any parent should have to deal with alone. Turn to other parents, school professionals, and mental health professionals to get the help and support that you and your child need.    

1Elizabeth Englander, Edward Donnerstein, Robin Kowalski, Carolyn A. Lin, Katalin Parti. (2017). Defining Cyberbullying. Pediatrics, 140 (Supplement 2), S148-S151.

2Kowalski, R., & Fedina, C. (2011). Cyber bullying in ADHD and Asperger Syndrome Populations. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 5(3), 1201-1208.

3Mishna F. (2003). Learning Disabilities and Bullying: Double Jeopardy. Journal of Learning Disabilities. 2003;36(4), 336-347.


Mary Rooney, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. Dr Rooney is a researcher and clinician specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and co-occurring behavioral, anxiety, and mood disorders. A strong advocate for those with attention and behavior problems, Dr. Rooney is committed to developing and providing comprehensive, cutting edge treatments tailored to meet the unique needs of each child and adolescent. Dr. Rooney's clinical interventions and research avenues emphasize working closely with parents and teachers to create supportive, structured home and school environments that enable children and adolescents to reach their full potential. In addition, Dr. Rooney serves as a consultant and ADHD expert to Huntington Learning Centers.


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