Is it ADHD or Child Traumatic Stress? A Guide for Clinicians

Jack Henderson’s third grade teacher has been noticing that he has difficulty concentrating in the classroom. When she mentions this to Jack’s mother, she reports that he also struggles with following instructions for completing chores at home. During a parent/teacher conference, the teacher says that she believes Jack is displaying signs of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD. Jack’s mother discloses, however, that his difficulty with concentration seemed to appear after a series of sometimes violent family conflicts during which his father struck him and his mother, and subsequently moved out of the house. After moving out, Jack's father was injured on his construction job and ended up hospitalized for an extended period.

Does Jack have ADHD or might he be showing symptoms of Child Traumatic Stress? Or might he have both? A number of researchers believe that child traumatic stress can sometimes be mistaken for ADHD because of the overlap between ADHD symptoms and the effects of experiencing trauma.i

In this Guide, we provide definitions of child traumatic stress and ADHD, explain how symptoms can overlap, and summarize some of the differences between the two. Understanding these differences can help parents and providers assess and treat children appropriately and more effectively.