The short answer: yes. While there is no causal relationship between ADHD and trauma, several studies suggest that experiencing childhood trauma may impact the onset and severity of ADHD symptoms.
ADHD is currently thought to have a neurobiological origin, meaning it’s caused by the way the brain functions and the way it is structured. Trauma experienced early in life can disrupt brain development, impacting a child's ability to regulate thoughts, feelings, and actions. In an interview with Psychology Today, child psychiatrist David Rettew, MD, explained, “Kids have only one brain that responds to both genetic and environmental factors. Attention and self-regulation begin to be learned early in life. When a negative environment impacts that developmental process, the brain physically changes.” Those changes may hasten or worsen the development of ADHD symptoms.
This is important because children with ADHD receive an estimated 20,000 more negative messages by the age of 12 than non-ADHD peers, contributing to their vulnerability to trauma. And individuals with ADHD not only face an increased risk of experiencing trauma - research indicates that individuals with ADHD are approximately six times more likely to develop PTSD from a traumatic experience.
What’s more, the stress involved needn’t be from something most people would consider traumatic. Life stressors like career shifts, breakups, grief and loss, etc., can all trigger or intensify ADHD symptoms. Many people never discover their ADHD until adulthood for this very reason.
These overlapping symptoms make it particularly difficult to tease apart ADHD and trauma. For instance:
Since trauma can worsen ADHD symptoms, it’s important to be aware of this comorbidity, especially for clinicians. Not only does early and accurate diagnosis help with finding the right treatment; it can prevent development of other complications. Research has found that undiagnosed PTSD can lead to development of additional mental health conditions. Depression, substance and alcohol use, and suicidality are all more likely to occur in someone with undiagnosed and untreated PTSD. Physical health conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue are also common complications. All of these are likely to worsen ADHD symptoms, making diagnosis that much more crucial.
The intersection of trauma and ADHD impacts more than just comorbidity. It’s important not to overlook the everyday challenges neurodivergent children encounter, which can have a lifelong impact on stress and the ability to cope.
Molly Hutt, a Shimmer member, explained it this way:
“I’ve seen ND kids grow up in traumatic situations, like living in a household with neglectful or abusive parents. I notice that, often, these kids aren’t taught the same coping skills that their non-traumatized counterparts learn. Even if their brains somehow manage to develop relatively normally, they just don’t have the toolkit all the other kids have.
ADHD adults who grew up in supportive, non-traumatic households are better equipped to handle ADHD-related stressors. They tend to have better built-in support systems; they were raised by supportive families, and as adults, they still have those families to lean on when they need help or comfort. That lowers overall stress and frees up executive functioning spoons. It probably also allows them to pool labor and resources, so they get more out of what they put in.
People who come from traumatic contexts rarely escape those contexts entirely, even if they physically remove themselves and heal over time. There are always going to be some things missing, some things you can’t access, some things you can’t get rid of, etc. The same goes for relationships.
Inevitably, the impact persists in one way or another and affects the expression of any mental health condition.”
While the relationship between ADHD and trauma is multifaceted, research points to a significant connection. Further research is needed to unravel the complexities and potential interventions for individuals facing both ADHD and trauma. Understanding this link is crucial for effective diagnosis and treatment, so if you suspect you have symptoms of ADHD and trauma, it’s important to seek out a qualified mental health provider for an in-depth assessment.