When you think about ADHD, you may think about a little boy who falls out of his seat at school, or who asks a ton of questions while his teacher is presenting a lesson. You may even imagine a teenage boy who is lost in his thoughts during math class and misses the lesson and then doesn’t know how to complete his homework. But ADHD doesn’t just affect boys; it also affects girls, and it’s not always that easy to spot. In fact, it’s very easy to miss.
What does ADHD in girls look like?
With girls, they tend to be overcompensate for their inattentiveness, impulsivity or need for motion by verbalizing what sound like good reasons. For example, “I didn’t finish my math homework because I was helping mom make dinner.” This sounds legitimate but the underlying reason is that she may have lost focus while working on her assignment or completing a task and found something that caught her attention in that moment. Girls also overcompensate by working for long hours on a task or assignment and ultimately complete it well, but the time and effort it takes to reach the end point is exhausting.
She also may be chatty, speaking her mind on topics of interest. She may appear to be social and friendly, which is another way that we, as parents, may miss the signs. Girls with ADHD are also sensitive and can become easily upset or tearful. They be shy and slow to warm up in social situations and have a few friends with whom they feel comfortable or are similar to them.
Our girls with ADHD may also hyper-focus on subjects or activities that come easily to them and are able to start and finish a task or assignment because they feel confident about their ability and are proud of the finished product. The ability to hyper-focus is also another factor that helps to disguise ADHD in girls.
Girls with ADHD also tend to feel anxious about their struggles with attention and starting and completing a task, which is also an internalized response. They may dread assignments that require writing or that are multi-step because they know that it will take them a long period of time to finish due to being distracted along the way. They worry about letting people down around them such as their teachers or parents. They want to start but they don’t know where to start. And when their anxiety is untreated and unrecognized for a longtime, girls can develop depression about their silent and internalized struggles.
ADHD in boys vs girls
Although competent and well spoken, many of our girls with ADHD often go unnoticed and their self esteem suffers. Girls attribute their struggles and often times to their own weaknesses, boys externalize their areas of weakness. For example, a boy may blame the teacher for creating a test that is “too hard” but a girl may blame herself by calling herself “stupid” or believing that she had not prepared enough. Girls tend to also have a higher level of social awareness and may take note that their areas of struggle are not the same areas of struggle for other girls in their grade or their age. As a result, they attribute this to a defect in their character, ability or skills and feel inferior or less intelligent than their peers.
When a girl is hyperactive or impulsive, others may attribute this to poor parenting or not enough limits; the child is “spoiled.” Sadly, we hold societal expectations that “boys will be boys” and will do “boy things” and the expectation is that girls have better self-control and behavior. This further contributes to a girl’s perception that she is “bad” or she is doing something ‘wrong.” We expect boys to have ADHD but we don’t expect the same of girls.
Signs your daughter might have ADHD:
· A messy room, desk or backpack
· Disorganized but can still find things
· Unaware of time
· On the go or busy
· A daydreamer
· Feeling stressed often
· Feeling anxious often
· Feeling overwhelmed often
· Speaking often and a lot
· Always losing their belongings or forgetting them at home, at school or at a friend’s house
If any of the above resonates with you about your daughter, reach out to your pediatrician and gain feedback from your child’s teacher(s). Ask specific questions, such as:
· What are my daughter’s strengths
· What are my daughter’s weaknesses
· How does she interact with her peers in class? During recess? During lunch?
· Does she struggle to start an assignment?
· Does she struggle to maintain her attention and finish an assignment or task?
· How does she compare to her female peers?
· How does she react when she makes a mistake?
· Does she seem anxious?
You may also wish to consult with a psychologist who can help you to translate your observations of your daughter’s strengths and weaknesses as well as teacher feedback. This will ultimately help you to establish a diagnosis, if one exists, and gain the necessary supports, program and accommodations that your child will need in school.