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ADHD or Trauma?

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a common neuro-developmental disorder often traced back to childhood. There is a soaring number of ADHD diagnoses at the moment. Whilst ADHD medications are working for some people, it does not work for others.

What is important to recognise is that symptoms of trauma may be misdiagnosed as ADHD. Studies show that childhood trauma may predict ADHD-like symptoms.

Traumatic events such as the experience of violence (at home), abuse or neglect (both physical and emotional) lead to symptoms that mimic ADHD symptoms: difficulty focusing, inattentiveness, hyperactivity and impulsivity. Children who experience trauma may behave in ways that imitate ADHD which can continue into adulthood as well, leading to diagnosis of adult ADHD.

Equally, children who are experiencing trauma (e.g. violence at home) are likely to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This may show up as being fidgety or unable to focus in class, leading to a misdiagnosis of child ADHD. Studies are also finding that children with ADHD were more likely to have had an experience of a traumatic event.

The causes of ADHD are still not fully known. However, stress experienced early on in life can impact a child's brain development. Stress disrupts both brain development and the ways in which the brain regulates how a person thinks, feels, or acts.

The cycle

Children with ADHD symptoms, such as hyperactivity or impulsivity, ecounter more trouble than children without symptoms. They are then likely to experience more stressful events, such as being told off, violence, or punishment. Consequently, this may register as trauma, meaning the cycle of the symptoms and trauma, leading to more symptoms occurs.

The overlapping symptoms of Trauma and ADHD

  • being fidgety or restless

  • being distracted, inattentive, “spacey,” or losing focus easily

  • hyperactivity or hyperarousal

  • impulsivity, which is a symptom of ADHD but may also manifest as “acting out” in those with trauma

  • difficulties with doing certain tasks, being organized, and managing emotions

The effects of trauma on a child can permeate into adulthood. Since symptoms can overlap, it may seem there is a link between the two. Symptoms that are usually exclusive to trauma include:

  • physical symptoms such as headaches, racing heart, and digestive issues

  • emotional responses such as fear, sadness, anger, denial, shame, and confusion

  • nightmares in response to the traumatic event

The major differences include people with PTSD experiencing negative, intrusive thoughts or avoiding things or events that remind them of a particular trauma.

Get help

Speak to a professional to help understand whether such symptoms stem from PTSD, traumatic events that have occurred. Treatment for ADHD usually includes:

Processing the trauma is an essential treatment for those with PTSD/trauma. Since PTSD and ADHD symptoms can overlap, it is important to consider the full picture of a person’s background and what they have experienced to diagnose any condition.


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