Is it ADHD? Or Could it be Trauma

Is it ADHD? Or Could it be Trauma

We see kids all over the place that act wild, hyperactive, and excessively energetic, and we often assume they have ADHD. We need to realize, with great compassion, that the symptoms of ADHD and trauma look very similar.

Problems with concentration, angry outbursts, sleep disturbances, and socially withdrawn behaviors are all examples of symptoms of children who have experienced a significant event, or trauma. The symptoms for ADHD include difficulty sustaining attention, difficulty organizing tasks, hyperactivity, impulsivity, and difficulty following through with instructions. They sound pretty similar, right?

When a child has experienced domestic violence, drug addicted parents, neglect, and an unstable home environment we would expect them to struggle. What about if they had a surgery (or surgeries) at an early age when they did not comprehend what was happening? What if a child felt helpless as he watched his family fall apart and he blamed himself while his parent’s divorced? What if there was unknown sexual abuse that a child feels unwilling (or unable) to talk about? Are we as parents, physicians, and mental health providers missing the possibility that our children may have been traumatized, and treating it as ADHD?

The treatments for Trauma and ADHD are very different. If a clinician, teacher, or parent observes a child’s hyperactive behavior, or distractibility, they might conclude that the child has ADHD without realizing that the real problem could be unresolved trauma. Giving a child who has been traumatized stimulant medication can wreak havoc on their nervous systems. Teaching them coping skills for their inattention is pointless if they need to process a traumatic event (or events.) 

Taking a thorough history is the first step for proper treatment. Exploring events such as surgeries, difficult dental procedures, sudden changes in behavior (which might signal sexual/physical abuse or bullying), and significant life changes (such as moving to a new school) is essential in teasing out the differences between ADHD and trauma.

The brain stores traumatic events that are unresolved in the mid brain. When a child is triggered by a similar event later on, or is excessively stressed, his behavior can mimic ADHD. Picture it like someone who is carrying a backpack of experiences. For most of us, the “backpack” has a few things that were challenging in it, but we trudge on because it’s not overly significant. When a child has traumatic experiences his “backpack” is “fuller and heavier” than other kids, and his brain is working overtime to manage the load.

Normally, when everything is working well, we use our prefrontal cortex (PFC,) which is in the front of the brain, to help us make important decisions. When trauma is present, or is triggered, the child is often flooded with the survival skills he was born with and may not have access to his prefrontal cortex. The memories in the midbrain (the backpack of traumatic experiences) sabotage the brain’s ability to use the “thinking” part of the brain, or the PFC. Instead the need for “fight or flight” shows up due to the trauma history, and the child can act like he is distracted, hypervigilant, and inattentive. He is not a behavior problem, he needs help.

One solution to this challenge is allowing a safe place for the child to process any significant events to rule out trauma. There are treatments available today to release trauma such as EMDR, somatic experiencing, and brainspotting.

Often with traditional talk therapy, a child processes using the “thinking” part of their brain. This can be very difficult and cause the child to not want to continue with therapy. With brain-body trauma therapy using the above-mentioned methods, the child processes in the mid-portion of the brain and it releases the “stuck” event which causes the ADHD-like symptoms to release.

Using Brainspotting and bilateral sound with a simple headset, the therapist can guide the child to remember a “medium sized” event so they can feel what it is like to release it. Rapport is important for a child to feel safe enough to revisit the trauma. The difference in this type of therapy is that the child isn’t just remembering the event, he is releasing it from the “stuck” part of his midbrain. After the release, it is easier for the child to learn new skills that improve his behaviors.

I have seen children reduce their anxious behaviors, improve concentration, and change how they look at past events that previously overwhelmed them using brain-body trauma processing. The treatment is often much shorter than traditional treatments because it’s solving the underlying problem before introducing Cognitive Behavioral Treatment interventions. As parents, teachers, and health care professionals, let us be aware of the similarities of ADHD and trauma, and find out what will truly help our kids get better… and allow them to thrive.


About the Author: Helene E. Goble, MFT

Helene GobleHelene Goble a Marriage and Family Therapist practicing in Fair Oaks, CA. She specializes in treating individuals with ADHD, couples With ADHD, and people who have experienced trauma. She also volunteers with ‘The Soldier’s Project’, which is a volunteer organization working to help Veterans and their families adjust to their return to civilian life. Find out more about Helene at www.helenegoblemft.com.

20 Comments

Michelle C

What do i ask for when trying to finda therapist do these kinds of treatments? My son has had 3 open heart surgeries all under the age of 3 and I’ve always believed his behavior since is more PTSD than ADHD. after his 3rd surgery his personality TOTALLY changed and hasn’t been the same since! He’s being treated for adhd (he’s 12 now) but i really don’t think thats it. Any help would be appreciated

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Karen Young

Michelle try the governing body for psychologists or therapists in your country, and see if they can point you in the direction of somebody who deals with children and trauma.

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Emry

This makes a lot of sense for me. When I was five, I had just moved to Colorado, just gotten out of the homeless shelter and off the streets, and had almost been killed by my classmates when I was diagnosed with ADHD. I never thought that could have ever linked to my diagnosis in any way and will keep it in mind.

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Daphne C.

I stumbled upon this gem of an article! It certainly makes one pause and think. I was a classroom teacher for many years and after reading your article the light bulb went on in my head. I’ve come across quite a few students who met the criteria for trauma and not ADHD. Thank you for such an enlightening article!

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Meeka

Hi Sigmund,

This was a very interesting article to read. I am an elementary School Counselor and private practice therapist. I see many students who are diagnosed with ADHD, but it may in fact be a trauma they experienced early in life. This is something parents do not tend to disclose as I fear they are afraid of being judged and keep key information such as that to themselves. Noteable, I have noticed my ADHD students increase which is quite alarming. There is a mix between those being medicated and those who are not. I see behavior concerns in those who are not medicated, but fear that instability in the home may be to blame for school behavior and failure to complete homework.

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Anue Nue

Or could it be the childhood trauma of grief over the loss of relationship with a living relative/grandparent whom nobody in the child’s life speaks about, or to anymore?

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Angela

This could well be the case with my 13 year old son, who we’ve been trying to get help for since he was 8 !! He was diagnosed with ADHD last year . Trying to get someone to help is another story though plus he won’t engage with anyone ?

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Nadine

This was highly interesting to me. My eldest daughter suffered 2 traumatic events back to back then refused school and started to exhibit OCD traits such as everything in even numbers, crossing over doorways twice, lights on and off twice. The school (taken over by an academy) – another trauma she experienced after the first 2 as stability and known staff were gone were very quick to say ADHD. I pointed out all the trauma she was experiencing and felt ADHD was incorrect (perfect school record and attendance until this point) through counselling and change of change we got there but it was traumatic for us all. 3 years on and just back from her first high school parents meeting she is doing amazing. My dilemma is now that my youngest nearly 9 has suddenly started to display the same behaviour but there hasn’t been ‘big’ traumas recently but much going back she witnessed by daughters behaviour which was distressing and violent and my ex husbands violence (she was about 2/3yrs) Has she stored up the memories or learnt the behaviour from the past and had it suddenly triggered by an event do you think ? She has found it tough her sister going to high school and missing her. Big sister also doesn’t want to play games etc much anymore ? A bit confused in how to deal with the younger one now as I can’t pinpoint the triggers ?

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Debbie

WOW, this is very interesting and really has my mind spinning if this is what my son is struggling with. He’s 20 now and is a bit easier to control himself physically and mentally but maybe I’ve been treating him for bi-polar when he has trauma.

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Maria

This was such a great article. My now seven-year-old had been diagnosed with ADHD since the age of 4 and now I’m starting to think that that wasn’t the right route to go. Where would I be able to find this type of treatments he is currently on medication because of his diagnosis at the time. He has only been on medication for 3 months and I do anything to remove them from medications but I also want to help them thrive. Any advice or any suggestion would be very helpful. Thank you.

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Maggie

Wow! I like this article. Would it be similar to autism? My brother was diagnosed autism spectrum disorder. After reading your article maybe after all he is not but just suffering from trauma. When he was still few months old he had a major operation in his hernia. Would you think its really that that causing him? How can a baby who had a trauma from a medical procedure be revived? Thanks

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Mandy

Some children with autistic traits can get a mis diagnosis , as these traits may have been manifested from attachment issues , abuse, neglect , trauma , to name a few . How ever there are many children who are on the autistic spectrum with learning difficulties (some severe) which would go beyond the scope of being explained by trauma induced and this must be remembered .
A detailed history of the child would need to be explored to get to the true nature of the child’s difficulties and which avenues would help the most .

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Mama M.

My niece moved in with me a year ago, after neglect from both parents and being moved back and forth from parent to grandparents. She had to adjust to a new city, school, home and came with little of her own. She was defiant and aggressive initially with tons of hyperactivitt. I thought she was ADHD but quickly realized she suffers from trauma. A few months ago she started therapy and adjusted my parenting of her. Happy to say we have made great strides. We are all happier and she is doing better socially and academically at school. Slow but steady progress being made.

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Kelly

I was abused , beaten, molested by my brother and his friends and still am very traumatized by the beating and verbal abuse that my mother used for her amusement.

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Kelly I’m so sorry that this has happened to you. These things you have described should never ever have happened. The people who have hurt you should have protected you, and it is completely understandable that you are still traumatized. You don’t have to do the healing on your own. I would strongly encourage you to speak to a counsellor (if you aren’t already) who can give you the support you need to heal from what has happened to you. We all need support from others sometimes. You deserve to find a way through this and to be happy. I wish you love and healing moving forward.

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Patty

I remember my sister ( a teacher) once told me that many children who come from abusive homes have ADD/ADHD. This article makes perfect sense. It’s actually trauma mimicking ADD/ADHD symptoms. I appreciate the work you do with trauma victims & those suffering from ADD/ADHD.

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Sue

Thanks for the really interesting article, I read it with interest and wonder if this could be perhaps my daughter’s problem.
She has been school refusing for 6 months now. This started after a number of events in her primary school where she developed a phobia of vomiting when someone vomited and it splashed onto her skirt and she wasn’t allowed to wash it.She coped with this phobia(just about) for a couple of years but it was brought to a head just over 6 mths ago when she was forced to stay in the classroom where somebody vomited. It was mismanaged after that with a couple more incidents of children vomiting and her being forced into the classroom. She has since joined secondary school but after 2 incidents (child feeling unwell and a boy pretending to be sick) she is school refusing to the point of self harm and threatening suicide.
Your thoughts would be gravely appreciated.

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Sue here are a couple of articles that might help. Your daughter’s fear is understandable given the experiences she has had with people vomiting around her. Memories can be very powerful. This article talks about how to help kids with fears and phobias https://www.heysigmund.com/phobias-and-fears-in-children/. Here is another article that will help to explain what is happening in her brain when she feels anxious. https://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-in-kids/. It’s very possible that when she is in a situation that triggers a memory of vomit or people vomiting around her, her brain tries to protect her. This is the fight or flight response and it’s how anxiety happens. Explaining where it comes from can be very empowering for kids, so that when they get the feeling that there is something to be frightened of (as in when she has to go to school) she can understand that it is the work of her overprotective brain, and that it doesn’t really mean something bad is going to happen. Hope this helps.

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Emily

That’s really interesting, because I had a similar experience. I developed a phobia of vomiting (Emetophobia) that caused me severe anxiety while in grade school and high school. Any time I felt like burping, I was convinced I had to vomit and would have a full blown anxiety attack. I was CONSTANTLY anticipating being sick, and could never just enjoy life. I didn’t take school trips, go to sleepovers, or anywhere that might trigger being ill. The turning point came when my Mom noted that it was possible that I would never, ever vomit again (although unlikely… she didn’t mention that at the time of course). This helped me rationalize that I didn’t have to fear it constantly, since it may never happen. Eventually I forced myself to stop letting the anxiety interfere with enjoying my life – when the anxiety came I resigned myself to just riding it out. Not fighting it, just letting it wash over me and eventually pass. I’ve since grown out of the fear of vomiting, but for many, many years of my life it affected me in a huge way. Hope this gives some insight!

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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