ADHD versus Anxiety

by:  Craig Peterson

adhdA recent article about the misdiagnosing ADHD in children with early trauma has been making the rounds.

Before everyone jumps on the bandwagon, let’s remember that many mental health issues are at play. Not all children are the same. Each needs to be carefully diagnosed.

For traumatized children who haven’t begun to heal – or those in the process of recovery, nearly all will show signs of anxiety. My three oldest children are prime examples.

An anxious child will likely have trouble focusing when unresolved feelings float in their head from day to day. In that case, the remedy seems rather straight-forward.

Be intentional and make the child feel safe.

When a parent or teacher reduces anxiety in children – thus allowing them to put their energy into the task at hand, everyone wins.

That was the case with one of my children who came into my home with severe attachment and trauma issues at age 10. For the previous two years, teachers, child welfare professionals and foster parents all reacted to behaviors – which actually make the situation worse. And like many traumatized children, one was diagnosed with ADHD and prescribed a stimulant.

Not surprisingly, his “brand” of ADHD wasn’t cured. In fact, the medication caused a motor tic which only added to the judgment from others.

When he was taken off medication and placed with a teacher who understood not only trauma but also the therapeutic ways to be empathetic, many people shook their head.

“We misread that one!”

The research is clear. Stimulant medication will curb ADHD symptoms in nearly 95 percent of children who actually have the condition.

If the behaviors persist – after trying one or two psychotropic medications, ADHD probably isn’t at play.

But before we discount the prevalence of ADHD in children with attachment and trauma issues, let’s look at my other son – the one who would arrive at school with the left shoe not matching the one on the right.

He, like his older brother, came into my home at age 9 with a history of trauma and lack of attachment. He, too, had been diagnosed with ADHD and was taking medication. In his case however, the medication made a huge difference in his ability to succeed in the classroom.

The doctors got the ADHD piece but still missed the trauma piece. With out-of-control behaviors in one foster home after another, he was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and prescribed additional medications – which did nothing but make him sick.

With both of my sons, professionals discounted the lasting effects of trauma.

Would all children with a history of trauma be better served by addressing their anxiety first – while keeping an eye open for true ADHD behaviors?

My answer is yes.

Lessons learned – wishing I had another chance.

D. Craig Peterson is a retired ATN Board Director. You name it, Craig has a story to share in achieving success and learning from mistakes as he raised six children to adulthood...all while maintaining faith and believing in unconditional love. He understands the ups and downs of learning challenges, special education, psychotropic medications, ADHD, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, Bipolar Disorder, Reactive Attachment Disorder, sexual abuse, juvenile justice, residential placement and so much more. In his upcoming book Adopting Faith: A Father's Unconditional Love, Peterson details his journey in raising six children who brought unbelievable challenges from their birth families and the foster care system. His parenting is a combination of typical and unconventional strategies." His blog is here: