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Problems with concentration, angry outbursts, sleep disturbances, and socially withdrawn behaviors are all examples of symptoms of children who have experienced a significant event, or trauma.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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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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