Adult ADHD and Childhood Trauma: Is There a Link?

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on July 14, 2022
4 min read

If you’re an adult with ADHD, you’re among millions of other grownups who also live with it. Scientists know your genes play a major role in your chances of having it. They also know there’s a strong association between having trauma when you’re a child and then having ADHD in your adulthood.

Here’s a deeper look at that connection.

These are scary, violent, dangerous, or life-threatening events that happen to a child (someone younger than 18). These are also sometimes called adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) or early life stress.

Childhood trauma can come from things that happen to you or that you see happen or hear about happening to someone else. Anyone can go through trauma. But certain groups are more likely to experience ACEs, including women and youths who are Black, Hispanic, or Latinx.

Examples of traumatic events include:

  • Physical, sexual, or emotional abuse and neglect
  • Seeing someone hurt your mother
  • Being around drug use or mental illness at home
  • Losing a parent to death or divorce
  • Having a family member in jail or prison

It can also include:

  • Growing up poor
  • Living in a violent area
  • Experiencing systemic racism or discrimination
  • Being in a bad car accident
  • Having a life-threatening illness

ADHD is a brain development disorder. Trauma, or traumatic stress, is an emotional response to an alarming or painful event. Both can cause ongoing behavior and attention problems.

Studies show adults diagnosed with ADHD are more likely than those without ADHD to also have posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. That’s a mood disorder you might develop after a traumatic event. People with PTSD can have ongoing trauma symptoms, or ones that come and go.

It’s hard to untangle adult ADHD from PTSD. That’s because the two disorders share symptoms, such as:

  • Concentration problems
  • A strong reaction to small events
  • Restlessness
  • Angry outbursts
  • A hard time sleeping
  • Zoning out when stressed (also called dissociation)

Some researchers think ADHD boosts your odds of developing PTSD after you go through something traumatic. Others think it might go the other way. More research is needed to understand this connection better.

Your genes, environment, and lifestyle all shape who you are. And certain things have to fall in place for you to develop ADHD.

But childhood trauma seems to be a big predictor of long-lasting ADHD symptoms.

Scientists think early and ongoing exposure to ACEs raise your “toxic levels of stress.” That’s bad for anyone’s physical or mental health. But it seems to also raise your chances of having moderate to severe ADHD.

The number and types of ACEs you have also seem to matter. There’s evidence that ADHD is more likely in adults who experienced two or more of these during their childhood:

  • Low household income
  • Divorce
  • Family mental illness
  • Neighborhood violence
  • Family member in jail or prison

When it comes to ADHD, here’s what research says about childhood trauma and the following:

Early brain development. Younger brains are constantly learning and adapting to the outside world. Research shows that childhood trauma can shape how certain areas of your brain form. That includes stress-sensitive structures and connections that control how you think, feel, and act.

Early life stress may result in changes that cause you to have common ADHD symptoms, including:

  • An ongoing sense of fear
  • Heightened response to stress that doesn’t go away easily
  • Difficulty regulating your emotions
  • Trouble planning or paying attention
  • Lack of impulse control

Negative memory bias. Early life stress can affect how you view your place in the world. You may dwell on bad memories more than good ones. These thoughts may interfere with your thinking. That can increase your odds of ADHD symptoms like inattention or hyperactivity.

Lack of social support. Childhood trauma doesn’t cause ADHD-related brain changes in everyone. It may be more likely to happen to people who feel helpless. It may be easier for kids to bounce back from traumatic stress when they feel safe and supported by parents, friends, or other loved ones.

Genetic factors. You’re more likely to develop ADHD if someone in your family has it. And some studies show your genes may influence how trauma affects your brain.

Many of us had hardships growing up. But if you had ADHD symptoms as a child, they increase the odds you experienced childhood traumas like accidental injuries, car crashes, and emotional or physical abuse. Those traumas may then set you up for having ADHD in your adulthood.

This may happen because:

Kids with ADHD get in trouble. It’s hard for kids with ADHD to control how they act and feel. Adults may think they’re misbehaving on purpose. This may lead to ongoing punishment that includes physical violence.

ADHD symptoms may get missed. There’s some evidence that kids who go through trauma are less likely to be hyperactive. But adults may not know inattentive symptoms are related to ADHD. Without treatment, life with ADHD can strain relationships at school or home. In turn, this may increase the odds of ACEs.

Parental mental health. Parents of kids with ADHD have high rates of depression and anxiety. They’re also more likely to have ADHD themselves. Mental health problems or stress at home may lead to a harsh parenting style.

If you had childhood trauma, tell your doctor. They might not think to ask you about it first. Ask them to refer you to a therapist who specializes in traumatic stress disorders. They’ll help make a treatment plan that’s right for you.

A mental health professional can help you spot and manage symptoms of traumatic stress and ADHD. You may need medication, talk therapy, or a mix of both.

Some examples of treatment for childhood trauma include:

  • Antidepressants
  • Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Mindfulness-based treatments
  • Neurofeedback training
  • Eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)

Other supportive therapies may include:

  • Art or music therapy
  • Yoga
  • Exercise
  • Support groups

Find more information about ADHD treatment through the websites of Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD) or the National Institute of Mental Health.