ADHD symptoms are often different in girls. As medical knowledge evolves to understand more about these differences, so does our ability to identify and help our young girls at an earlier age.
For decades, ADHD diagnosis was limited by a myth that ADHD only affects young boys because they are more likely to exhibit the more outwardly apparent symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity. As recently as 2013, it was also classified as a disruptive disorder of childhood (before the age of 7) only, which caused problems for girls whose symptoms are often noticed at puberty.
Now we understand that ADHD can impact boys and girls of all ages, with varying presentations of symptoms. Save your daughter from the challenges of living with unsupported ADHD by being aware of the differences and seeking diagnosis and support if appropriate.
ADHD symptoms in girls and young women
Of the three ADHD presentations – hyperactive, inattentive, or both, boys will usually present as hyperactive, which is easy to notice. Girls often present as inattentive, which can be much easier to mask, hide, or go unnoticed. Instead, adults may label them spacey, lazy, or just overly talkative. This suggestion that their symptoms are instead personality flaws can lead to low self-esteem, depression, and a failure to seek proper diagnosis later in life.
Diagnosing ADHD as early as possible provides access to effective treatment, which can change her whole experience of the world. Symptoms to look out for in girls include:
- Daydreaming, zoning out, or appearing not to listen. She may look zoned out because the hyperactivity is in her head. This can lead to rumination and being lost in many threads of thought simultaneously. Watch for school reports advising that, ‘She would do better if she just focused.’
- Disorganisation, mess, and difficulty managing time (executive malfunctions). She might make rushed and silly mistakes, forget daily activities, constantly lose things, or seem incapable of getting ready in time.
- Difficulty concentrating. Difficulty staying focussed or becoming easily distracted may show up as a tendency to procrastinate long projects until the last minute or look bored when attempting to absorb new or complex information.
- Emotional sensitivity, anxiety or sadness. Girls with ADHD may cry or become irritated more easily than their peers. They may be seen as ‘over emotional’ and struggle to process their feelings.
- Challenges making friends. Impulsivity in girls can present as interrupting and talking out of turn. She may also have difficulty interpreting what is and is not socially acceptable. Combined with all of the above, these symptoms can make building and maintaining friendships difficult.
- Poor self-esteem. Years of worrying, trying to fit in, being accused of laziness or ditziness, and working twice as hard to concentrate or do as well as expected can take a toll on your daughter’s opinion of herself.
Masking ADHD symptoms to fit in
Girls’ ADHD symptoms are not only different but also commonly emerge later, with puberty, exacerbated by hormones only to get mistaken for ‘normal’ puberty-related issues. Many girls are also unintentionally socialised to achieve, please others, and avoid making trouble.
In an attempt to fit in and meet these social expectations, your daughter may mask her symptoms, hiding them through learned behaviours so that no one knows she is different. Common masking among girls includes:
- Mimicking and copying other people’s behaviour for acceptance.
- Developing perfectionist tendencies.
- Bottling up emotions until they feel sick without even knowing why.
- Excessive note-taking to help memory later.
- Reacting as expected rather than as felt.
- Obsessively checking belongings to avoid forgetting or misplacing something.
- Staying strangely quiet or being overly careful in every word.
- Constant (often ineffective) attempts to establish systems to keep life organised.
While these masking techniques can make life easier for her on one level, always wearing a mask is very tiring, and she is still struggling. You may notice an emotional crash when you collect her from school, tears over her own imperfection, or constant mimicking of whichever friend she spends the most time around.
Ways to help your daughter with ADHD
The first step to helping your daughter is to get her an ADHD assessment and be sure what you are dealing with. Your GP can refer you to a paediatrician, child psychologist or child psychiatrist who can assess and (if applicable) treat her for ADHD.
However, to fully support an older daughter, you should start by speaking with her about her symptoms. Ask open questions and give her space to share what she wants. Maybe it’s stress, something you said, or a genuine change in who she is and how she feels about the world. Mention ADHD gently at first. No girl, especially at puberty, wants to hear that there is something wrong with her, and many may still think of ADHD as a boy’s problem.
Unfortunately, wait lists for an ADHD assessment can be long. While a diagnosis allows your specialist to prescribe medication, which can be life-changing, there are other things you can start to do right now that can make a big difference too.
Give her only one or two instructions at a time. Ask her to repeat them to be sure she heard and understood them.
Children (and many adults) with ADHD, may think they want lots of variety to stimulate their brain but actually thrive with clear, simple rules and routines they can rely on.
Break it down
As your daughter gets older and teachers ask her to complete more complex projects, the task may cause more stress than expected. Help her break it down into steps and make a plan.
You do not need a referral to see an ADHD coach, and it doesn’t matter to us whether you have an ADHD diagnosis or not. We work to help manage symptoms regardless of what causes them. There are also some fantastic support books and podcasts available. Encourage her to find one she relates to and take whatever she can from it.
Look for the good in your daughter
People with ADHD are often fantastic at a particular special interest or discovering novel solutions to problems. They may be highly creative or oddly intuitive. Her empathy might make her the most caring and supportive person you will meet, or she may be wonderful in ways that have nothing to do with her ADHD. Let her know that you see her strengths as well as the areas where she needs support.
Social Living Solutions provides coaching for high school students and adults of all ages. Our coaches have lived experience with ADHD and can help you manage your symptoms with or without a diagnosis. Contact us today to find out more.