One out of four children in the United States will experience some sort of trauma by the age of four.
Four or more Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are considered toxic to a child’s emotional, cognitive, and physical wellbeing. Trauma creates changes to our biology, genetics, epigenetics, behavior, and ultimately a myriad of lifetime health outcomes. Looking through a trauma-informed lens allows us to have effective interventions to help individuals reach their full potential. However, trauma and ADHD can look very similar.
ChildSavers Director of Mental Health and Lead Trauma Trainer, John Richardson-Lauve, LCSW, explains the difference.
The Prefrontal Cortex: Trauma and ADHD
Our prefrontal cortex governs executive functioning, allowing us to complete multi-step tasks, focusing, and avoiding distractions. We think of ADHD as a dysfunction of the prefrontal cortex, not “firing” as it should, which is why we prescribe stimulant medications to restore executive functioning in the front of our brain.
When we experience chronic toxic stress (trauma), there’s an overlap in symptoms with ADHD. This overlap creates deficits in the firing of the prefrontal cortex.
The Effects of Trauma on The Brain
A brain affected by trauma is always looking out for danger and scared of the next stressor coming their way. For example, a student with ADHD may hear a book drop to the floor and become slightly startled, turning their attention away from your lesson plan. Then, their brain has trouble zoning back in on your lesson plan.
A student who’s experienced multiple traumatic life events may react by covering their head, jumping up, crying, shouting, or becoming angry/irritable. They are in a state of panic.
Trauma distracts your prefrontal cortex because it never feels safe. Traumatized brains are constantly looking for danger and maybe be unable to multi-task or focus – similar to children with ADHD. It’s important for pediatricians, medical providers, and parents to understand that the presentation of ADHD might actually be diagnosed as chronic toxic stress.
ChildSavers offers a multitude of trauma training opportunities for organizations, businesses, and community leaders. Our Director of Mental Health and Lead Trauma and Resilience Educator, John Richardson-Lauve, LCSW, is available to train in Richmond or around the US. Join us for free and fee-based online trauma training during COVID-19.