In a society that often mischaracterizes Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) as a "boys-only" affliction, we inadvertently compromise the well-being of an entire cohort: girls. We are ensnared by the stereotype that ADHD primarily manifests through hyperactivity—a symptom more frequently observed in boys. What often slips through the cracks is the subtler inattentive subtype of ADHD, which is more prevalent among girls. It's high time we shift the spotlight and dissect this unnoticed crisis, replete with its unique complexities and long-lasting ramifications. The lifelong consequences of ignoring neurodiversity like ADHD in girls have proven to be extremely harmful and avoidable.
The Gender Disparity in ADHD Diagnoses
Statistically, three boys receive an ADHD diagnosis for every one girl. This isn't a testament to the prevalence of ADHD across genders; rather, it underscores the inequity in diagnosis. While boys often externalize their symptoms through hyperactivity and impulsivity—prompting teachers to report these "disruptive" behaviors—girls with ADHD are prone to internalize their symptoms through inattentiveness like daydreaming or shyness, which often goes unrecognized, leading to compromised identity development and self-esteem as they grow older.
ADHD: A Closer Look at the Symptoms
The externalized symptoms get flagged quickly, invoking parent-teacher conferences and, often, a pathway to diagnosis, such as hyperactivity, incessant fidgeting, restlessness, impulsivity, interrupting conversations, and reckless behavior. However, inattentive symptoms are subtle, insidious, and internalized, such as persistent daydreaming and forgetfulness—making them challenging to spot and easy to misinterpret. It’s also true that girls may try harder to hide or ‘mask’ their hyperactivity. “Masking” is a term to describe how some people–often girls–use coping skills to conceal their ADHD and fit in socially. They may force themselves to stop speaking their minds out of fear of ‘talking too much” or receiving attention from peers. Unfortunately, this leads to girls hiding their ADHD and, thus, less likely to get the help and support they need.
If you have a girl in mind that you are wondering might have ADHD, take these into consideration:
Is her room messy and disorganized, even a few minutes after it’s been cleaned?
Does she frequently misplace or lose her backpack, keys, or phone?
Is she overly reactive? Does she cry or scream at the smallest provocation?
Does she make self-defeating statements, such as “I’m stupid” or “No one likes me”?
Does she seem to have difficulty remembering where to go/which way to turn, even when it’s a route she has taken many times before?
Does she demonstrate frequent indecision or answer “I don’t know” to questions asked?
Does she avoid or refuse to attempt new things?
Does she fear getting in trouble, even when she has done nothing wrong?
Does she get frustrated with herself easily?
Is she always rushing to finish something, even when there is plenty of time?
Is she fearful of speaking in public? Does her teacher comment that she never raises her hand in class?
Does she seem to talk a lot? Interrupting others in an attempt to get her point across?
Does she seem to have a random stream of thoughts? Does she seem to hop from one topic to another without a bridging statement?
When these girls get to college, they may decide it is time to seek help. This means most women and girls aren’t being diagnosed until their 20s. This means a significant negative impact on their self-esteem, self-doubt, and stress management has already built a foundation. We can do better and support them by paying attention and listening to their struggles.
The Cumulative Impact on Girls
For girls, the underdiagnosis of ADHD isn't merely a matter of mislabeling; it's a catalyst for a cascade of psychological issues, from anxiety and depression to eating disorders. Research highlights an unsettling trend: girls with ADHD face elevated risks of academic challenges, substance abuse, and peer rejection compared to their male counterparts. Social currency for a young girl is peer acceptance. Lose that, and you're not just isolated; you're exposed and vulnerable. Let’s have courage as parents and caretakers to provide support and guidance to these brave girls by being curious and leaning into their struggles with openness, and consider the possibility that ADHD may be present and need treatment.
Raising the Alarm Early
Timely diagnosis and intervention are crucial for mitigating the impact of ADHD before the onset of secondary symptoms. If you suspect a girl in your life may be grappling with ADHD, it's crucial to consult a mental health professional. However, be cautious: many practitioners still operate under the antiquated presumption that ADHD is a male-centric disorder. Seek a therapist familiar with the intricacies of diagnosing girls with ADHD to ensure a nuanced and accurate assessment. Affirming the experience of their lived experience, no matter the age provides a scaffolding of support and advocacy that will be needed as they continue to grow and develop into adulthood.
A Guide to Parental Support
While medication, play therapy, family therapy, tutors, and occupational therapy are essential components of managing ADHD, the role of the family is invaluable. In a world quick to judge and slow to understand, be the one who does both. Allow her creativity, curiosity, and unique perspectives to shine through. And remember, while a diagnosis may offer an explanation, our actions offer solutions. Adapt your home environment to facilitate focus and attentiveness. Encourage your daughter to explore her strengths—be it her intuitive understanding of people or her boundless creativity. Develop strategies to help her ask for help without embarrassment, such as rehearsing specific phrases she can use in school. Learn about ADHD from sound resources. The more parents know about their child's ADHD, the more they can support the unique beauty of their child.
An Imperative for Change
ADHD in girls might manifest differently, but it's not an enigma. It's a glaring gap in our healthcare system and in our collective understanding of mental health. By advocating for our daughters, we don't merely assist them in navigating a challenging world; we actively participate in changing that world. Let's commit to disseminating awareness, advocating for accurate diagnosis, and deploying the resources necessary to empower girls with ADHD to fulfill their highest potential. We can do this!
Adapted from: Child Mind Institute; ADDitude