Toxic Stress versus ADHD

She is the kid the teacher expels to the hallway, she sits in the hallway were everybody sees the disruptive kid, her head often down on the desk where she replays the night before, and feels intense sting of rejection from her teacher. She closes her eyes tightly, but the scenes still play out vividly. Dad hitting mom, and then mom finishing a bottle of wine alone as they both hid in her closet. She waited for the inevitable blackout that would result in temporary safety and maybe even some sleep. Once her intoxicated parents were both asleep, she climbed in her own bed, tears soaked her dingy pillow case. Her sobs were silent, but her pain intense, and her body stayed in full fight or flight mode, her brain unable to process any of it. She slept with trauma interrupting her brain development.

The man she called dad spent time in and out of jail, and when he wasn’t chasing the bottom of a bottle, she adored him; those times were rare. Her stomach ached because the night before was also absent of food and water. She had taken seven trips around the sun, and her lived experience affected every fiber of her being, including her ability to stay on task, refrain from outbursts, or to self regulate when she grasped an academic concept before the teacher completed instruction. No one at school intended to miss the obvious, daddy was good at covering the bruises, and mommy lied for him. Frustrated, her teacher ordered a battery of test–with confidence she had ADHD, but the results shocked everyone. She is a good academic student, and unanswered parental communication frustrated her teacher.

Test results demonstrated no indication of ADHD, and so the issue of toxic stress was considered. According to a Harvard University study, “childhood toxic stress is severe, prolonged, or repetitive adversity with a lack of the necessary nurturance or support of a caregiver to prevent an abnormal stress response.”  Suddenly, those entrusted with her academic care realized the effects of her environment mimicked ADHD in her developing brain.

The National Institute For Health published an article addressing this disturbing trend, and also delineating the difference between toxic stress and ADHD. Sadly, many children are given an ADHD diagnosis that follows them their entire lives, ensuring they are medicated improperly and the genesis of their behavioral issues are not addressed. The same study by the NIH draws a firm connection between toxic stress and lifelong physical issues. In order to help children, or surviving adults, we must dig deep into trauma work, healing toxic stress and giving the survivor the best possible outcome. A successful outcome is coupled with knowledge and understanding of children, trauma, and the developing brain. This series will address all of these things as we continue to highlight child abuse awareness month. There is no excuse for abuse, and we will never stop fighting to help survivors and those that love them heal, and live the life designed for them to live.

That little girl is here to help you understand all of it, because when you know better, you do better.

Keep it here on the blog all week as we attempt to help caregivers understand when there may be more at play than a brain that struggles to focus. We will help you understand, and pray you then either find some peace and compassion for yourself, or the much needed knowledge to help others.

In the meantime, here is a podcast episode where licensed EMDR consultants dives into brain science a little deeper.

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