ADHD vs PTSD Symptoms in Children
With about 6 million children in the U.S. diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), you have most likely heard about this condition. Did you know that symptoms of ADHD can overlap with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)? This means that it’s possible for a child to get the wrong diagnosis.
Knowing the correct diagnosis can help your child get the best, and most appropriate, care as soon as possible. If you think your child may have ADHD or PTSD, it’s important that you talk to their healthcare team about any traumatic events that have occurred and your concerns. Since there are no panels or labs that can test for ADHD or PTSD, it’s important that your child’s healthcare team has as much helpful information as possible to make a diagnosis. This includes knowing if your child has experienced something traumatic. Let’s start by taking a look at ADHD and PTSD separately, and then together.
What is ADHD?
ADHD is a condition that we can see in children and adults. You may notice that people with ADHD are often easily distracted, restless, and impulsive – just to name a few characteristics. Often this condition is identified in children who are going to school, as it can cause interruptions or disturbances in the classroom or problems when the child is trying to do their homework.
While many children may struggle with sitting still or paying attention, the difference between an impatient child and a child with ADHD is that the child with ADHD’s symptoms will be much more noticeable for their age or where they are developmentally – typically causing a lot of problems at school, at home, or within relationships.
There are three main types of ADHD:
This is a child who has trouble staying on task, focusing, and organizing. They may not follow instructions, forget daily tasks like chores, or not manage their time well.
A hyperactive child is one who moves around a lot, often fidgeting or not sitting still. An impulsive child is one who makes decisions or does something without thinking of the consequences. They may not be able to sit still or do a quiet activity. They may also have a hard time waiting their turn or they may interrupt someone during a conversation.
This is a child who may have symptoms from both the inattentive and hyperactivity/impulsive categories.
What is PTSD?
We used to associate PTSD with war veterans, but it can also affect people who have not fought in a war. PTSD occurs when someone sees or experiences a traumatic event, or series of events.
A traumatic event is when something happens that causes a person to fear for their safety or well-being – or the safety and well-being of others. Some examples of traumatic events are abuse, serious accidents, violence, natural disasters, or death. Remember, these events can be traumatic if they happen to someone, or even if someone sees (or witnesses) the event. For example, if there is gun violence in someone’s neighborhood, they can get PTSD even if they are not harmed by the violence.
Traumatic events aren’t always something you are aware of, either. If your child was in a car accident or had major surgery, you likely know these events took place and can watch for signs of PTSD. However, if they were abused or bullied, you may not know this happened and cannot watch for any signs of an issue.
How do ADHD and PTSD symptoms overlap?
ADHD and PTSD have their own signs and symptoms. Typically, we think of someone with ADHD as being loud and energetic, while someone with PTSD as maybe being more reserved or careful. But did you know they share some symptoms too?
Take a look below to see how PTSD and ADHD can look different, and how they can look similar. (Remember, these lists don’t show all the possible signs and symptoms).
Symptoms for Both
|hard time paying attention||bad dreams or trouble sleeping||hard time concentrating|
|trouble listening||negative emotions lasting a long time||easily distracted and/or restless|
|loses things||irritable||trouble with memory|
|fidgets||always aware of and assessing their surroundings||trouble with skills like planning, self-control, etc.|
|talks a lot and/or interrupts often||flashbacks||inappropriate or risky behaviors|
Scientists have found that ADHD and childhood traumatic stress both affect the same areas of the brain: the prefrontal cortex and the temporal cortex. These areas are responsible for controlling your emotions and impulses, as well as your decision-making skills, which is where we see a lot of the overlapping symptoms. Learn more about PTSD in children and teens.
How can you tell if it’s ADHD or PTSD?
If you think your child could have ADHD or PTSD, you will need to talk to their doctor. Only trained healthcare professionals can figure out which condition is affecting your child. It’s important that your child’s healthcare team has as much information as possible to make the most accurate and appropriate diagnosis.
ADHD and PTSD have similar symptoms but one of the biggest differences is that PTSD happens after a traumatic event. Therefore, your child’s doctor will need to know if any significant events occurred in your child’s life. Depending on your child’s age, they may be able to tell the doctor themselves. Even if they can tell the doctor on their own, consider still letting someone on your child’s healthcare team know about any traumatic events like a divorce, suspected bullying, parent illness, etc. The healthcare team may also want your child to talk to a mental health professional.
What can I do to help my child?
Your child’s doctor or mental health provider may have some suggestions specific to your child that can help you support them. In addition, you can try some of the following ideas, even as you wait for a diagnosis:
- Be present – both physically and emotionally. Your child may do things that push you away but be patient and stay present. Give them a positive, calming, supportive environment.
- Create routines. Having a stable routine can help your child feel more secure. Create a set routine for meals, bedtime, getting ready for school, etc. We know things come up and sometimes routines need to be changed. That’s OK, but letting your child know ahead of time if their schedule needs to change can help them.
- Do relaxing activities with them. Help them relax by practicing slow breathing exercises (breathe in for 3 seconds, and out for 4 seconds) or do a relaxing activity together like listening to calming music or reading.
- Give them control. When possible, let them make choices so that they feel in control of their life. For example, ask them if they want an apple or some crackers for a snack that day instead of deciding for them.
- Take care of yourself. This may not sound like a way to support your child but taking care of yourself lets you take better care of them. You may remember during the safety instructions before you take off on a plane, they always tell you to put on your oxygen mask first before helping others. The same applies to situations like this – taking care of yourself helps you take care of others. Make time to do activities you love or seek support from your friends and family.
If you think your child has ADHD or PTSD, talk to your child’s doctor or healthcare team. You can also schedule an appointment with a Lurie Children’s specialist to help you and your child. The Center for Childhood Resilience is also a great resource for parents, school professionals, community and city leaders, and more who are looking to support children’s mental health.
Lurie Children’s prides itself on being a reliable source of information on your child’s health and wellbeing — and the Sarah and Peer Pedersen Family Learning Center (PFLC) is here to help with that mission. Visit us online or on the 12th floor of the main hospital for more information on health topics like this one!
1. “Data and Statistics About ADHD.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 9 Aug 2022. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/adhd/data.html.
2. Elmaghraby, R., Garayalde, S. “What is ADHD?” American Psychiatric Association. June 2022. https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/adhd/what-is-adhd.
3. Ferrer, M. “ADHD, PTSD, or Both?” Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. June 2020. https://chadd.org/attention-article/adhd-ptsd-or-both/.
4. Nelson, A. “Trauma, Kids, and ADHD: Is There a Link?” WebMD. 29 Sept 2022. https://www.webmd.com/add-adhd/childhood-adhd/adhd-traumatic-childhood-stress.
5. Taylor-Desir, M. “What is Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?” American Psychiatric Association. Nov 2022. https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/ptsd/what-is-ptsd.
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