ADD and Trauma

Numerous studies have found a strong link between childhood trauma and poor physical and mental health. “Adverse childhood events,” or ACEs, include child physical, emotional and sexual abuse, physical and emotional neglect, and circumstances like divorce, mental illness, addiction, and the imprisonment of a relative. 

First developed in the 1990’s, the ACE test measures the number of ACEs an individual has experienced in order to predict his or her risk of future health problems. The higher the ACE score, the greater the risk of health problems like alcohol abuse, depression, diabetes and heart disease.


ACEs and ADD

If you have traumatic experiences during childhood, the body’s stress-response system may be “programmed to overreact, influencing the way your mind and body work together.” Megan Gunnar, a developmental psychologist, explains that the part of the brain that controls “executive function,” including judgment, planning and self-control — seems to be most affected by ACEs. “Over time,” Gunner says, “experiences of neglect and abuse and stress impair those circuits. You’re less able to tell yourself not to eat the ice cream, or smoke the cigarette, or have that additional drink. You’re less capable of regulating your own behavior.”

The “executive function” region of the brain is also the region most associated with ADD symptoms. It’s therefore not surprising to learn that children’s reactions to trauma are sometimes misdiagnosed as symptoms of ADD. According to child psychologist Hilit Kletter, “it’s something that’s very common in trauma: difficulty in regulating emotions and behavior. That’s why a lot of these kids get in trouble with the classroom.”

Although research on the link between ACEs and ADD is limited, it suggests several links between adverse events and ADD:

  • A study published in 2008 found that “adverse events showed a small but positive correlation with current ADD severity” among adults.
  • study published in 2015 found that “having conflicts with others and accumulation of adverse life events over time partly explained the association between ADD and depression.”
  • Another study published in 2015 that examined maltreatment among girls with ADD found that “maltreated participants were significantly more impaired than non-maltreated participants” in regard to self-harm (suicide attempts), anxiety, depression, eating disorders and general well-being and self-worth.

Click here to read more about the ACE Study, and watch pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris discuss how childhood trauma affects health across our lifetimes.