ADHD and Trauma May Open the Door to Self-Harm for Women


Exposure to neglect, abuse, or other traumas in childhood and adolescence puts young women with ADHD at a raised risk of self-injury, a new study finds.

The results indicate that environmental factors can have a significant bearing on the negative psychosocial outcomes of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder—and also raise the question whether children with ADHD are more vulnerable to maltreatment due to family stress.

Says Maya Guendelman, a PhD student in psychology at University of California, Berkeley:

“While ADHD is clearly a heritable and biologically based disorder, and can be treated with medications, it is very important for clinicians and treatment providers to pay close attention to the trauma experiences of individuals, particularly women, with ADHD.”

Age-inappropriate Behavior

A neurodevelopmental psychopathology, ADHD is estimated to afflict at least 6 million children and teenagers in the United States and is characterized by hyperactivity, poor concentration, impulsiveness, distractibility, and other behaviors that are inappropriate for the child’s age.

Guendelman, lead author of the study in Development and Psychopathology says:

“In the United States, we have a large contingent of kids being diagnosed with ADHD. At the same time, 10 to 20 percent of US kids are abused or neglected. But we have very limited understanding of the overlap between these two groups.

What if, in some portion of cases, we as clinicians, parents, and teachers are superficially seeing and diagnosing and treating symptoms of hyperactivity and inattention, but it is really trauma experiences that underlie some of those overt manifestations of ADHD?”

Suffering in Silence

To investigate the relationship between ADHD and childhood maltreatment, Guendelman and colleagues compared data from the Berkeley Girls with ADHD Longitudinal Study (BGALS), which has tracked more than 140 girls with ADHD from childhood to adulthood since 1997.

Led by psychologist Stephen Hinshaw, the BGALS study has consistently found that, unlike boys, whose symptoms are more overt, girls with ADHD suffer in hidden ways, and are more likely to internalize struggles as they mature into adolescence and young adulthood.

This coping mechanism can make them more prone to depression, self-mutilation, eating disorders, and suicide attempts as they enter adulthood.

Specifically, researchers looked into how many of the women with ADHD in the BGALS sample had reported incidents of physical abuse, sexual abuse, or neglect during childhood or adolescence.

Nearly one in four members of the ADHD group had reported some form of trauma by adolescence, compared to 11 percent in the non-ADHD control group. Also, the maltreated ADHD subgroup had a higher propensity for depression, anxiety, and self-destruction than both the girls with ADHD who had not been maltreated and the girls in the non-ADHD control group.

Social Adversity a Factor

Guendelman says:

“Our findings clearly support the contention that child or adolescent maltreatment specifically is an important risk factor for maladaptive functioning in young adulthood among women with childhood ADHD, particularly with respect to depression, anxiety, and suicidal behavior.

This is not to say that all ADHD is due to social adversity rather than biological factors. Rather, it suggests that we must consider the contribution of factors such as severe social stress and trauma in our understanding of how children with ADHD develop.”

The BGALS sample is made up of a racially and socioeconomically diverse group of girls in the San Francisco Bay Area who have been tracked through early childhood summer camp participation, adolescence, and now into early adulthood.

It has compared the behavioral, emotional and academic development of the 140 girls with ADHD to that of a demographically similar group of 88 girls without ADHD. Every five years, the research team publishes studies looking into how ADHD impacts girls, including this latest research.

ADHD is not the only psychopathology impacted by environmental factors, says Hinshaw, senior author of the study:

“Across a range of mental disorders, from schizophrenia to depression and bipolar disorder, scientists are realizing that, despite the undisputed biological underpinnings of these conditions, key life experiences, including trauma, are essential forces related to long-term outcomes.”

  1. Maya D. Guendelmana, Elizabeth B. Owensa, Chardee Galána, Arianna Garda and Stephen P. Hinshawa. Early-adult correlates of maltreatment in girls with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: Increased risk for internalizing symptoms and suicidality. Development and Psychopathology, DOI: 10.1017/S0954579414001485
  2. The ADHD Explosion: Myths, Medication, Money, and Today’s Push for Performance. Stephen P. Hinshaw, Richard M. Scheffler, Oxford University Press; (2014)

Last Updated on November 29, 2023