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Adverse Childhood Experiences May Up Risk of ADHD

Adverse Childhood Experiences May Up Risk of ADHD

A new study suggests that children who experience family and environmental stressors and traumatic experiences are more likely to be diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine say adverse experiences such as poverty, mental illness, and exposure to violence are associated with childhood development of ADHD.

ADHD is the most common neurobehavioral disorder of childhood. There has been a significant increase in parent-reported ADHD prevalence over the last decade, and there has also been an associated rise in stimulant medication use.

Current ADHD clinical practice guidelines recommend evaluating for other conditions that have similar symptoms to ADHD, such as disruptive behaviors, impulsivity, and issues with memory, organization and problem-solving.

Despite the guidelines, few pediatricians routinely ask about psychosocial factors that could be affecting a child’s health during ADHD assessment.

Exposure to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), commonly referred to as family or environmental stressors such as divorce and familial incarceration, is one way that behaviors similar to those exhibited by children with ADHD can be triggered.

Research has shown that this is because ACEs may increase a child’s risk for toxic levels of stress, which in turn may impair brain development, behavior, and overall physical and mental health.

“If clinicians aren’t routinely discussing exposure to traumatic experiences and identifying ACEs, particularly among children with behavioral concerns such as ADHD, there may be a heightened risk of missing an underlying trauma history or misattributing some of the symptoms of traumatic stress as solely those of ADHD,” said lead author Nicole M. Brown, M.D., M.P.H., M.H.S.

“We sought to examine the link between ADHD and ACEs in an effort to improve ADHD assessment and management.”

The study appears in the journal Academic Pediatrics.

Brown and co-investigators at CHAM used a nationally representative sample of 76,227 children from the 2011-2012 National Survey of Children’s Health, to identify children four to 17 years old whose parents reported both the presence and severity of ADHD and their child’s exposure to nine adverse childhood experiences.

The ACE’s included socioeconomic hardship, divorce, death, domestic violence, neighborhood violence, substance abuse, incarceration, mental illness in the family, and discrimination.

The analysis found that children with parent-reported ADHD were more likely to have two or more ACEs exposures, compared to children without parent-reported ADHD.

Most significantly, children with socioeconomic hardship, parent/guardian divorce, familial mental illness, neighborhood violence, and familial incarceration were more likely to have an ADHD diagnosis.

Furthermore, those with socioeconomic hardship and familial mental illness were more likely to have moderate to severe ADHD, according to parental reports.

Children with parent-reported ADHD represented 8.8 percent of the 76,227 children, and were more likely to be male, aged 12 – 17 and non-Hispanic white.

“Our research shows there are significant associations between ACE exposures and having an ADHD diagnosis, and we encourage pediatric providers to more frequently evaluate for ACEs as part of ADHD assessments,” said Brown.

“Ultimately, this may lead to more trauma-informed approaches to care, particularly for children whose response to stimulant medications or targeted behavioral therapies are poor.”

Source: University Hospital for Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Montefiore Medical Center 

Adverse Childhood Experiences May Up Risk of ADHD

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Adverse Childhood Experiences May Up Risk of ADHD. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 12 Oct 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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