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April 2017Vol. 18, No. 2Is It ADHD or Trauma Symptoms?

When children exhibit aggression or frustration, are easily distracted, or are having difficulty in school, there is a tendency to diagnose these behaviors as signs of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). However, ADHD is not the only viable diagnosis. Children exposed to traumatic events can present with symptoms that mimic those associated with ADHD, which can lead to a misdiagnosis. 

In the podcast "Is It ADHD or Trauma Symptoms?" produced by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, Beth Barto, L.M.H.C., interviews Heather C. Forkey, M.D., about how children exposed to traumatic events can exhibit symptoms that overlap with ADHD. Dr. Forkey explains that exposure to trauma affects the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is the part of the brain that is important for executive function. Executive function is related to learning, impulse control, memory, and cognitive flexibility. In cases of trauma, the brain, in a sense, shuts down these executive functions in an effort to respond to the threat the child has been exposed to.

Dr. Forkey suggests disclosing any potentially traumatic experiences the child has had to pediatricians and other health-care staff. She also suggests that school staff observe the child in the classroom to determine whether the child is being triggered by anything in the school setting that would put him or her into a state of fear, which may be misinterpreted as ADHD.

To listen to the full podcast, "Is It ADHD or Trauma Symptoms?," go to