Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a common neurodevelopmental disorder that often begins in childhood. Studies have found that trauma occurring in childhood may exacerbate or predict some ADHD symptoms.

Traumatic events, such as experiencing violence, abuse, or neglect, can not only result in children behaving in ways that imitate ADHD, but these symptoms can develop well into adulthood as well. Symptoms may include difficulty focusing, inattentiveness, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.

However, some symptoms occurring in children after a traumatic event, such as violence at home, may actually be post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Symptoms such as being unable to focus in class or being constantly fidgety may result in a misdiagnosis of ADHD.

Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say that the causes of ADHD are still unknown, potential causes include genetics, brain injuries, and exposure to environmental risks. Some studies have found, however, that children with ADHD were more likely to have had an experience of a traumatic event.

This article will explore the link between ADHD and trauma. It will also explore the link between ADHD and PTSD, the shared symptoms, and how to differentiate between ADHD and trauma overall.

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Some studies have found that childhood trauma may be a marker for a person developing ADHD later in life.

Negative memory bias can link to an increase in symptoms of ADHD, such as inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. This is where stressful events that happen early on in life can make a person view the world in a negative manner, focusing on bad situations and emotions rather than good ones.

Older studies have found that experiencing a high number of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can have a significant link to developing ADHD. These may include experiencing highly stressful events such as:

  • abuse or violence
  • neglect or poverty
  • witnessing violence

The causes of ADHD are still not fully known, but stress experienced early on in life can shape the brain of a child. Stress can disrupt not only the development of the brain but also the ways in which the brain regulates how a person thinks, feels, or acts.

The cycle

If a child has ADHD symptoms such as hyperactivity or impulsivity, they may encounter more trouble than a child without symptoms. They may also experience more stressful events, such as being told off, violence, or punishment.

This, in turn, can register as trauma, meaning the cycle of the symptoms, trauma, and thus more symptoms occurs.

What is ADHD?

ADHD is a common neurodevelopmental disorder in which a person has symptoms such as difficulty focusing, impulsivity, and hyperactivity.

Diagnosis usually occurs in childhood, with around 8.4% of children in the United States having ADHD and 2.5% of adults.

Causes of ADHD are relatively unknown but may include:

  • genetics
  • injuries to the brain
  • use of substances during pregnancy, such as alcohol
  • low birth weight

Learn more about ADHD here.

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Both trauma and ADHD share some overlapping symptoms, such as:

  • 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 well 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

Learn more about trauma here.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a condition that occurs after a person experiences a highly stressful or traumatic event. It may manifest as symptoms such as:

  • flashbacks
  • nightmares
  • intrusive thoughts
  • distress when experiencing things that remind or relate to the event
  • physical symptoms such as sweating, beating heart, shaking, or numbness
  • being hypervigilant or extremely alert
  • being angry or upset easily
  • inability to sleep
  • using substances to avoid memories
  • avoiding memories or emotions, such as avoiding affection
  • emotions such as shame, guilt, fear, or anger
  • being unable to trust anyone

Some studies indicate there is a link between PTSD and ADHD, particularly as a child may not be able to regulate or make sense of the emotions they are feeling regarding trauma. This may, in turn, manifest as common ADHD symptoms, such as lack of focus, disruptiveness, or impulsivity.

Understanding the root cause of trauma, and communicating about the event, can help understand as to whether a person’s behavior relates to ADHD or trauma. Trauma will exacerbate ADHD symptoms, but ADHD may have many other causes, too, such as genetics.

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

Talking with a professional is the first step to treatment for ADHD symptoms. They can help understand whether such symptoms stem from PTSD, traumatic events that have occurred, or other causes such as genetics. Treatment for ADHD usually includes:

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

It is important to rule out trauma before diagnosing ADHD, as some ADHD medications may increase the level of hypervigilant anxiety.

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Some studies have found that childhood trauma may predict some symptoms of ADHD. Experiencing trauma may lead to an increase in ADHD symptoms such as inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.

If a child or an adult is experiencing ADHD symptoms, it is important to seek professional help. Both ADHD and PTSD have overlapping symptoms, but trauma may not necessarily cause ADHD.

A personalized treatment plan can help a person or their child navigate symptoms of ADHD and, if necessary, the effects of trauma.