Does the Child Have ADHD or Trauma?

Frustrated Student

For those of us who deal with students who are having struggles in school there can be such a dilemma as to how to understand and categorize certain behaviors. When students are dysregulated, demonstrate “acting out” behavior or struggle to maintain their emotional balance there could be several possibilities as to what is really going on in their brains and perceptions.

Sometimes students who are unable to calm themselves are struggling with their inability to focus and have symptoms that are categorized as ADHD. Yet some of those symptoms are also indicators of past traumatic events they have experienced and may be reliving which can cause the same types of behaviors. It is difficult at times to know which of those issues are causing the behaviors. And in some cases, students can have both going on.

This issue is thoroughly discussed on the Child Mind Institute website in an article written by Caroline Miller. Here are some excerpts from the summary statement:

Children with ADHD can be fidgety (always getting out of their seats), distracted (not paying attention to the teacher), and disruptive in class. Kids who have had a traumatic experience – or repeated exposure to violence or abuse – do some of the same things. They are unusually sensitive to signs of danger or threat, which can cause them to be jumpy and unable to settle down. They may see people as out to get them, so are prone to lashing out. They may also have intrusive thoughts about traumatic events they’ve experienced, and that can make kids look spacey and distracted.

These behaviors can all look like symptoms of ADHD, and trauma may be overlooked by a clinician who’s in a hurry, or reluctant to ask parents whether a child has had a traumatic experience. But kids can also have both ADHD and trauma. And children with ADHD who experience trauma are more likely to develop PTSD than other kids, so they should be monitored especially closely.

Cute little boy with ADHD during session with professional therapist

When the effects of trauma aren’t recognized, kids don’t get the help they need to heal. And they are often treated as behavior problems, disciplined with suspension, which makes their symptoms worse.

Here is the link to the complete article for your review. We know that often the trauma impact is often overlooked which can lead to lifelong struggles without clarity or any resolve. This article gives some helpful tools on how to differentiate between ADHD and trauma and gives insight into what behaviors to look for as we assess and attempt to meet the needs of students. This is not an easy task but an important one to help us and them deal with what is going on in their brains in a way that is compassionate and can legitimize behavior.

Gerry Vassar


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