Chosen Blog

8 October 2020

ADHD and Children with Hard Histories

Chosen - Adoption | Foster & Orphan Care Outreach | Mentoring
By Monica Bidwell


I love to spend time with my kids–I truly do! But can I also say that I often find myself dreading the experience of doing homework with my children? While I suppose it is necessaryhomework is not on my top ten list of “most fun family activities” and I’m guessing that I’m not the only parent that feels that way!  However, when you are parenting children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), doing schoolwork can quickly shift from annoying ritual to painfully frustrating.  

Why is schoolwork so difficult from children with ADHDConsider some of the hallmark symptoms of ADHD: 

  • Difficulty paying attention, keeping on task, and following through 
  • Trouble getting organized, leaving tasks unfinished, forgetfulness 
  • Fidgeting 
  • Avoidance of tasks that require sustained mental effort 
  • Lack of focus, daydreaming 
  • Low tolerance for frustration 
  • Emotional turmoil 
  • Trouble waiting their turn, interrupting 

Talk about a recipe for an unpleasant schoolwork experience! Naturally, the above symptoms lead to a great deal of frustration when trying to complete a task that requires children to control impulses, pay attention, and complete educational tasks that probably don’t hold their interestsThis video gives some tips on strategies you can utilize with your child to help with ADHD-affected schoolwork woes. Knowing the specific symptoms of ADHD helps us develop empathy for our children’s struggles. So much of the difficult academic behavior needs to be reframed within the context of the ADHD diagnosis. We need to remind ourselves that it’s the disorder making the work difficult, not the child.  Seeing ourselves as a member of our children’s ADHD care team (rather than disciplinarians) when working on school tasks helps us not to feel at odds with our children, even when the behaviors stretch the bounds of our patience.  

But there’s another interesting angle of this issue to consider. According to a study by the CDC in 2015, children in foster care are three times more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD. Many professionals in child welfare or who have fostered or adopted from the child welfare system have begun to recognize and be troubled by the overwhelming percentage of children in care that are diagnosed with ADHD. Could it be that the effects of childhood trauma could produce similar symptoms to ADHD, or ultimately lead to an ADHD diagnosis? Dr. Nicole Brown, while completing her pediatric residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, took note of the fact that many of the children who were diagnosed with ADHD also lived in households and neighborhoods where violence and chronic stress were common. She began to investigate further and saw something significant: trauma. She noted an overlap in the symptoms of complex developmental trauma and ADHD. The behaviors that stem from trauma could be mistaken for inattention. Additionally, impulsivity could also be attributed to the fight or flight response in overdrive.    

Dr. Brown analyzed the results of a national survey about the health and well-being of 65,000 children and made some interesting findings. She discovered that children who had been diagnosed with ADHD had also experienced significantly higher levels of poverty, divorce, violence, and family substance abuse. In fact, children that had experienced four or more Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) were three times more likely to utilize ADHD medication.

While the data is fascinating to be sure, it has been determined that there is limited scientific proof that trauma leads to ADHD.  Some of the children in the referenced study could have been accurately diagnosed as having ADHD. However, the overlap of symptoms between trauma and ADHD is compelling. Dr. Brown’s discovery is an important one and should lead to careful screening for trauma by medical professionals in the process of evaluating for ADHD. 

What does this mean for us parents and caregivers of trauma-affected children who have been diagnosed with ADHD or are exhibiting symptoms of the disorder?

We need to keep in mind that trauma symptoms can bear a strong resemblance to ADHD symptoms and that both issues can be present at the same time. We need to continue to focus on earning secure attachment with the children in our care. As our children experience felt safety and secure attachment, new neural pathways in their brains begin to form. The chronic fight/flight/freeze response that had been the default setting of their trauma-affected brains begins to ease and neurological healing can take place!  You – the secure, loving adult – can help your child heal. That’s why Chosen exists – to help children heal from trauma by strengthening their families! 

We have been where you are in our own experiences raising children. Whether you are dealing with the daily struggle of completing schoolwork due to your child’s ADHD, or you are dealing with trauma behavior in other forms, please reach out to us. We are ready to help!