Child's behavior may be result of trauma, not ADHD

After a stressed-out mother called me several times recently to help deal with her 11-year-old son, who had been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and accused of acting out at school, I set up a wrestling-as-therapy session.

In mentoring school-age boys, it helps to channel emotion and let it dissipate so clear thinking can take over. This particular 20-minute session at the Baltimore Police Academy seemed like forever. This boy had a lot of pent up rage, and as I pinned him down during our session, it broke my heart to see him hold back tears and refuse with every twitching muscle to allow himself to be vulnerable.

And yet, I whispered in his ear that it was OK to feel. I refused to let him go.

As founder of Project Pneuma — where we teach young men the art of forgiveness, self-control and discipline — I see what our kids are going through on daily basis. What’s being diagnosed as an attention deficit disorder is very likely to be a symptom of trauma, especially in the homes and communities of black children.

Black children nationwide are experiencing emotionally painful or distressing encounters that have lasting mental and physical effects. To name a few: socioeconomic hardship, divorce, family drug use, family mental illness, neighborhood violence, incarceration of a parent or guardian, death of parent or guardian, domestic violence, racial or ethnic discrimination. These are all conditions black youths are subjected to at an early age and can help explain why medication doesn’t always alleviate attention deficit symptoms.

In Baltimore, young children have spoken of seeing people they loved being shot and killed. They may not know whether they would have a bed to sleep in or dinner that night, or they might be the only person in the household who gets up in the morning because everyone else is addicted to drugs.

Racial discrimination, too, increases a child’s likelihood of suffering anxiety and depression, which in turn makes them four times more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD, according to research from Dr. Ashaunta Anderson at the University of California, Riverside, School of Medicine. In presenting her findings last year at Pediatric Academic Societies meeting, Dr. Anderson suggested children affected by discrimination be given “developmentally appropriate coping strategies and systems of care.”

With the right support, we can address trauma and help children recover.

When the session at the academy ended and all the other boys wolfed down their snacks and left to go home, the 11-year-old was still “hulking out.” He wouldn't even calm down for his mother and eventually stormed out. I later saw him standing outside the door. I walked out, looked him in his face and told him I, along with all the other men in our program, loved him and wanted the best for him. We wouldn't say a word about his behavior.

I asked him if he believed me, and he said, “Yes.”

So, I asked him again what was wrong. He proceeded to tell me he was afraid we were going to leave him like his father and stepfather. Then he told me some stuff no child should ever see or endure at the hands of people who are supposed to love and care for him. He cried and cried and cried, and I just hugged him. I could see the look of surprise on his mother's face as she sat in her truck. I encouraged him to open up and give us the opportunity to help and support him. Then I told him to go apologize to his mother for storming off.

As I walked away, I could see him hugging his mother from my rearview mirror. Now, that broke me down. This is one example of the many black boys (and girls) who are experiencing this kind of pain and trauma, but it may be misdiagnosed as ADD and ADHD.

Unfortunately, an 11-year old boy doesn’t know what trauma is or that it happened to him. Even children blame their ADHD diagnosis because they’ve been told that’s the cause of their inexplicably rash actions.

Being quick to diagnose and medicate black youth may be masking the root cause of their challenges. We need to be willing to go to mat to address them and — with intention and resources — to set our children up to live and thrive.

Damion J. Cooper, a Public Voices Fellow, is founder and executive director of Project Pneuma in Baltimore. He can be reached at theprojectpneuma@gmail.com.

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