Trauma, Kids, and ADHD: Is There a Link?

About 6 million children in the U.S. have been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. Nearly two-thirds of those kids have another mental, emotional, or behavioral disorder as well. One of those conditions could be childhood traumatic stress.

Childhood traumatic stress is the psychological reaction that children have to a traumatic event, whether it happens to them or they see it happen to someone else. These events can affect children’s brains, emotions, and behavior in the same way traumatic events can affect adults.

Sometimes, going through a traumatic event can cause real attention problems. But trauma and ADHD can be confused in diagnosis because the symptoms of trauma mimic those of ADHD.

They share several symptoms, including:

  • Trouble concentrating
  • Difficulty learning
  • Easily distracted
  • Doesn’t listen well
  • Disorganized
  • Hyperactive/restless
  • Doesn’t sleep well

Some studies show that children diagnosed with ADHD are more likely to have had a traumatic event than children who don’t have ADHD. Scientists have also found that ADHD and childhood traumatic stress affect the same region of the brain: the prefrontal and temporal cortex, which controls emotions, impulses, and decision-making.

What Qualifies as a Traumatic Event?

Traumatic events can affect a child’s brain and behavior the same way they might affect an adult’s. Examples include:

  • Serious injuries
  • Life-threatening medical conditions
  • Physical or sexual abuse
  • Witnessing violent acts
  • Neglect or abandonment
  • Death of a loved one
  • Natural disasters
  • Car accidents
  • Poverty
  • Divorce

How to Tell if It’s Child Traumatic Stress

Sometimes it’s obvious if a child has been through a traumatic event. If your child was in an accident or had major surgery, you’re likely aware of the situation.

But it isn’t always so clear. Perhaps he was sexually abused or is being bullied at school. If your child shows ADHD symptoms, talk to him and ask him questions.

Don’t expect your doctor to figure it out, either. Not all pediatricians routinely ask kids about their mental health or what’s going on at home. Few screen for most types of traumatic events. Those who do ask mainly focus on depression or divorce.

If you take the time to ask when you see any of the signs, you’re more likely to uncover the trauma.

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How You Can Help

If your child has been affected by trauma, your support and care can help him recover. Here are a few things you can do:

Figure out what triggers their trauma. Sometimes even a harmless activity or statement can trigger trauma. Perhaps your child witnessed violence and a particular television show was on at the time. Now, when that show comes on, he gets extremely upset. Identify what has him distracted or anxious, and help him avoid those things.

Be present. Make yourself available both emotionally and physically to a child who’s been through trauma. He may behave in a way that pushes people away. Be patient. Offer encouragement, comfort, and positive attention.

Stay calm and be respectful. When your child seems overwhelmed, stay calm, and don’t raise your voice. Acknowledge his feelings. Be reassuring, but be honest, too. (Don’t make false promises, for example.) Never punish the child with physical discipline. Instead, set reasonable, clear limits, and reward good behavior.

Help him relax. Teach him slow breathing exercises or find calming music he might like. Develop a positive mantra or affirmation that he can repeat: “I am safe” or “I am loved.”

Create routines. Predictability can help kids feel more secure. Come up with a routine for meals or bedtime, and give him a heads-up before any changes to his schedule.

Give him some control. Let him make age-appropriate choices so he’ll feel some control over his life. This also may help him relax.

Get professional help. If your child’s symptoms last more than a few weeks, or if he’s getting worse, you may want to connect with a child mental health counselor. They can provide more resources, like behavior therapy or medication, to get a child the help and support he needs to recover from the traumatic event.

Take care of yourself. Parenting a child under this kind of stress isn’t easy. It can strain your relationships, with him or with other people. Sometimes families can feel isolated.

Also, if something traumatic happens to your child, it’s likely to affect you as well. This is called secondary trauma. It’s particularly likely if you’ve had your own trauma in the past. These tips can help you stay strong:

  • Make time for things you enjoy and things that support your mental health.
  • Don’t take the child’s bad behavior personally.
  • Celebrate improvements in his behavior, no matter how small.
  • Seek support from family, friends, or mental health professionals.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on June 26, 2018

Sources

SOURCES:

CDC: “Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).”

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network: “Is It ADHD or Child Traumatic Stress?”

Academic Pediatrics: “Associations Between Adverse Childhood Experiences and ADHD Diagnosis and Severity,” “Do Pediatricians Ask About Adverse Childhood Experiences in Pediatric Primary Care?”

Children’s Research Network: “ADHD, Trauma and Neglect.”

Children’s Hospital Association: “Researchers Link ADHD with Childhood Trauma.”

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families: “Parenting a Child Who Has Experienced Trauma.”

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