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New Research on ADHD and Childhood Abuse

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A study published on March 3, 2014 in the Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment, and Trauma shows 30% of adults with ADHD reporting physical abuse before the age of 18 (as opposed to 7% of the general population). The researchers conclude that there’s a strong association between childhood abuse and ADHD.

Sadly, I’m not surprised. This was on my list of as-yet unproven theories about ADHD. I talked about some of the reasons why kids with ADHD were at higher risk of being abused in my post Spanking Hurts ADHD Kids More Than You Think, Part I.

My theory takes this link a little further. I’m convinced that not only is there a link between childhood abuse and ADHD, but it’s likely that your ADHD symptoms are more severe and more intractable if you experience both, especially if you’re not diagnosed until late in life.

I went through years of counseling before I was diagnosed with ADHD. Sure, I had (and read) The Courage to Heal, but just when I thought it was smooth sailing, undiagnosed ADHD tripped me up.

Little did I know I’d still need courage to face a late-in-life ADHD diagnosis.

Here are some of the ways my childhood abuse and ADHD delivered a one-two punch.

Messing with my focus

Physically and sexually abused kids learn to cope by mentally and emotionally vacating the scene of the crime. Some describe the feeling of leaving their bodies, emotionally numbing themselves to the pain. Some mentally escape to an imaginary world where they feel safe. Adults can unconsciously evoke this survival mechanism whenever they’re feeling stressed, threatened, anxious or are triggered by memories of early abuse.

It’s difficult enough for an adult with ADHD to stay focused in the moment. What a disappointment when you’ve healed childhood trauma only to find that you’re still sometimes struggling to stay focused, but you don’t know why because you haven’t yet been diagnosed with ADHD.

Low self-esteem

Being abused as a child knocks your self-esteem and self-confidence (not to mention your teeth) out of the park. I thought I’d addressed my self-esteem issues, and yes, I definitely made strides. But I was still blurtatious, tripped over my own feet, poured coffee down my chin and onto my business suit (did that just last week in fact) and generally failed to live up to my inner awesomeness.

Why not?

ADHD.  No wonder my self-esteem (and fine motor coordination) was doomed to remain low. Until I understood ADHD my eccentricities and social awkwardness continued, unaddressed and undermining my efforts to restore my confidence.

Being a pushover

Recently, in ADHD and Gullibility, Part I, I wrote about the dangers of being an excessive people-pleaser as a response to ADHD. Aiming to please is also a learned behavior for the abused child who tippy-toes around the house desperately trying not to raise the ire of their abuser and thus trigger another bout of physical punishment.

Research shows that girls with ADHD are often ostracized and shunned by their peers in school. This can lead to becoming a people pleaser later in life in an effort to win friends.

If pleasing others is deeply rooted in childhood as a survival behavior, then later used as an ADHD coping mechanism, it may be trickier to unlearn than for those without early abuse experiences.

But wait, there’s more…

These are just a few examples where physical abuse and ADHD might reinforce one another.

Other shared behaviors and challenges include:

  • Increased risk of alcohol and substance abuse
  • relationship problems
  • unplanned pregnancies and promiscuous behavior
  • increased STI’s

You can’t go back

We can’t go back and fix our childhood. Blame is pointless, and being a victim is a drag. But I’m hypothesizing that understanding how childhood abuse experiences might be reinforcing ADHD symptoms will be necessary if ADHD treatment in adults with a history of abuse is going to be optimal.

This new study is a good starting point, but its researchers focus on its implications for children with ADHD. As many women are now finally being diagnosed, I’d like to see research on the link between adult ADHD and treatment outcomes where childhood physical and sexual abuse is present.


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New Research on ADHD and Childhood Abuse

Zoë Kessler, BA, B.Ed.

Zoë Kessler is an award-winning author, journalist, and speaker specializing in women and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD / ADD).

A frequent contributor to ADDitude Magazine, Kessler has also created video, standup comedy, and guest blogs on ADHD and Marriage covering ADHD-related topics.

Zoë, an internationally recognized ADHD expert, has been interviewed on radio and featured in magazine articles, documentaries, and books on the topic of women and ADHD across North America.

Her newly-released memoir ADHD According to Zoë - The Real Deal on relationships, Finding Your Focus & Finding Your Keys (New Harbinger Publications, 2013) about life with ADHD is now available.

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APA Reference
Kessler, Z. (2014). New Research on ADHD and Childhood Abuse. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 21, 2020, from


Last updated: 2 May 2014
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