Can You Tell the Difference Between ADHD and Trauma in Youth?  

More than three million people are diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in the United States annually.  

Defined as a chronic condition that includes attention difficulty, hyperactivity and impulsiveness, ADHD typically starts in childhood and can remain throughout adulthood. It can contribute to low self-esteem, troubled relationships and issues at school or work, according to the Mayo Clinic.  

According to the New York-based non-profit organization, Child Mind Institute, ADHD symptoms are often confused with trauma leading to misdiagnosis.  

Caroline Miller, editorial director of the Child Mind Institute, wrote an article about children who have behavior and attention issues while attending school are often thought to have ADHD.  

“But exposure to trauma can also cause symptoms that look like ADHD,” Miller wrote. “And trauma is often overlooked when kids are misdiagnosed with ADHD.”  

From being restless, distracted to interrupting class, children who have faced trauma (or are consistently exposed to violence or abuse) might do similar things that look like someone who might have ADHD, Jamie Howard, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who is a trauma expert at the Child Mind Institute, wrote in the article.  

“Some children who’ve been exposed to violence or another disturbing experience develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” Miller added. “There are also many kids who experience repeated traumatic events in their home or community who develop these symptoms, even though they don’t meet all the criteria for PTSD. This is sometimes called ‘complex trauma,’ and these kids, too, can be misdiagnosed with ADHD.”  

Also, some children could have ADHD and trauma.  

Complex trauma or PTSD signs similar to ADHD include:  


  • Children who have been exposed to trauma (sometimes repeatedly) are highly sensitive to perceived (real or not) signs of danger or threat. “If you’re on high alert for danger—if you have all sorts of stress hormones surging in your body—it’s going to make it hard to sit still and calmly pay attention,” wrote Dr. Howard. “That can look like the hyperactivity and impulsivity of ADHD.”  

Reliving Traumatic Past Occurrences 

  • Kids who have faced traumatic events might relive the experience in their minds and look like they are not paying attention or in tune with what is going on around them–like children who might be facing a symptom of inattentiveness because of ADHD. “If you’re having intrusive thoughts about a traumatic event you’ve been through, you’re not attending to the present moment,” Dr. Howard penned in the article. “You’re distracted because you’ve been through something so big that your mind can’t digest it.”  

Thinking Negatively of People 

  • Children dealing with trauma have a way of looking at others as “hostile” according to the article, and they think people “have negative intentions towards them.” Those thoughts can cause children to act out in ways that can look “impulsive or oppositional,” something kids with ADHD often develop.   
  • According to the article, children facing past or present trauma develop “a response to a perceived threat. Their fight-or-flight system has been activated and is firing even when there is no danger present,” Caroline Mendel, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, is quoted as saying in the article.  

Issues With Executive Functions  

  • Similar to children with ADHD, children who faced trauma might also have issues with executive functions such as staying focused, planning how to finish a task, handling emotions and more.  

How to see if a child has ADHD or trauma?  

According to Child Mind Institute, one of the main indicators of seeing what the reason behind a child’s behavior is is to think about their history, especially if they have trauma.  

“It’s also useful to find out whether there is a family history of ADHD, Dr. Mendel wrote in the article, “because kids whose close relatives have ADHD are more likely to have it themselves.”  

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