Q&A: Can ADHD & PTSD Occur Together?

 ADHD Weekly 2016-06-02

Question: I’m raising my nephew, who is in middle school. He has been diagnosed with ADHD and PTSD. Can you tell me more about how ADHD and PTSD can occur together?

— Auntie in Texas

Answer: Your question is a timely one; June is PTSD Awareness month. Post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, can develop in children following a single traumatic event, such as being in a car accident or witnessing a crime, or stem from a series of traumatic events, such as experiencing child abuse, threatening situations, or bullying. Other traumatic events might include serious illness, the death of a parent or other close family member, military deployment of a parent, or living in a location where violence is common. Unfortunately, about 25 percent of children will experience some sort of trauma before the age of 16.

In children diagnosed with ADHD, PTSD can add further complications to the child’s life. The symptoms of ADHD might increase the likelihood that a child experiences trauma, including accidents and mistreatment by adults responsible for the child’s care. PTSD can make existing ADHD symptoms worse. Childhood PTSD can include disorganized or agitated and hyperactive behaviors. For some children, the symptoms of PTSD can look similar to ADHD symptoms, making it harder to receive an accurate diagnosis and treatment.

For children, PTSD can include the following symptoms:

  • Reliving the event over and over in thought or in play
  • Nightmares and sleep problems
  • Becoming very upset when something causes memories of the event to surface
  • Lack of positive emotions
  • Intense ongoing fear or sadness
  • Irritability and angry outbursts
  • Constantly looking for possible threats, being easily startled
  • Acting helpless, hopeless, or withdrawn
  • Denying that the event happened or feeling numb
  • Avoiding places or people associated with the event

Talk with your nephew’s health care professional about finding treatment that addresses both the ADHD and PTSD together. You may need a referral to a specialist who can work with your nephew about the traumatic events and introduce behavior therapy techniques for your nephew and yourself to help him address symptoms of both disorders. Medication can be helpful for some children, but your health care provider will need to look at treatments that work together to lessen the symptoms of both the ADHD and PTSD.

For more information, visit the CDC’s information on Post-Traumatic Stress in children