Trauma and ADHD: The Differences & Similarities

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.

trauma adhd differences venn diagram
Source: Elementary Counseling Blog

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.


John Richardson-Lauve is a licensed clinical social worker with over 25 years of experience working in the field of community mental health. He is committed to the support and strengthening of individuals and communities that struggle with adversity. His experience includes work with chronically mentally ill adults, substance abuse, residential youth care, foster care, and outpatient mental health. He has worked with homeless veterans in New York City, in a hospice home for those with HIV in the early stages of the AIDS crisis, and 6 years living together with his wife in a home with 8 teenage girls in foster care. He is an experienced trainer, lecturer and keynote presenter. He is the Director of Mental Health and the Lead Trauma and Resilience Educator at ChildSavers, an outpatient mental health clinic that has served children and families in the Richmond community for over 90 years. He and his wife have a 12-year-old son and have worked with over 50 children in foster care in their home.

(804) 644-9590

Trauma and Resilience Training: Video Library

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top