Research has shown that the signs and symptoms of ADHD and girls compared to boys manifests in different ways. Though there’s a widespread misconception that ADHD is a “boy’s disorder” – as such, the CDC has indicated that boys are far more likely to receive an ADHD diagnosis because the disorder presents itself differently in girls, not necessarily because girls are less prone to the disorder. Indeed, most people envision little boys “bouncing off the walls” and immediately conjure up beliefs surrounding ADHD and what it must appear as, while at the same time believing if a girl doesn’t exhibit these symptoms, she most certainly doesn’t suffer from ADHD.
ADHD and Girls vs. Boys
The bottom line is that, put succinctly, “politely daydreaming underachievers” just don’t attract attention the way hyperactive and impulse-driven boys do. In other words, staring out the window doesn’t equate to much of anything to be concerned about when the kid next to you is jumping up and down in his seat. But a late or missed diagnosis when it comes to girls and ADHD doesn’t just mean they do not get the academic services and accommodations that could help them succeed – in fact, undiagnosed ADHD, according to research, can jeopardize girls’ and young women’s self-esteem and, in some cases, their mental health.
A basic comparison of what’s being analyzed here can be encapsulated as follows: Boys with ADHD often tend to externalize their frustration, blaming the “stupid test” or acting up/acting out, while girls are more likely to blame themselves, turning their anger, frustration and pain inward. As such, girls with ADHD are significantly more likely to experience major bouts of depression, anxiety and eating disorders than girls without the diagnosis.
Further, without proper diagnosis and understanding, failures become a sort of confirmation for self-convicting charges; girls will often think, “I’m not smart, I’m a failure, I don’t belong.” In fact, one 12-year-old-girl with ADHD was reported saying, during research sessions conducted in 2012 by Dr. Stephen Hinshaw, chair of the Psychology department at UC Berkley, “If everyone else can do these things and I can’t, it must be me.”
Also in 2012, Dr. Hinshaw and his team published a study which suggested girls with combined-type ADHD exhibit significantly higher rates of attempted suicide and self-harm, irrespective of the fact that 40-percent of them have outgrown their hyperactive and impulsive symptoms in adolescence. As Dr. Hinshaw himself explains, “The lack of social and academic skills – the cumulative effect of what they missed when they were younger – takes a toll.”
The World Today… and Where ADHD and Girls Fit In
Today’s kids are faced with more obligations and opportunities than ever before, with the word “over-scheduling” on everyone’s lips and college admission hopes looming large. As a result, the pressure to multi-task while succeeding has increased tenfold, and one of the consequences of this is that girls who were able to previously manage their ADHD symptoms before are no longer able to do so.
Example: A girl who was doing fine in grade school can suddenly find herself drowning in the extracurricular, social and academic intricacies of middle school.
As the director of the Chesapeake Center for ADHD, Kathleen Nadeau knows a thing or two about this entire situation, and often refers to what she calls the “struggle to decode the myriad of social subtleties of girl world” – in other words, how girls with ADHD are in a constant battle with regard to what to wear, what to say, how to talk, when to be comforting and even when to be mean. Because they’re under tremendous pressure now to be socially tuned-in and self-controlled, says Nadeau, girls that can’t fit in or perform up to this “girl code” can become a target for aggressively unfriendly girls who leave them isolated and confused.
Getting to the Heart of It: Girls, ADHD and Looking for the Signs
As a parent, it’s important that we know the different ways ADHD may manifest in female students in their classroom and at school, and the reasons why we may miss it. As we have already covered, symptoms in girls manifest differently than those in boys, and girls are much less likely to display hyperactive or impulsive behavior, instead just appearing inattentive, unfocused or “spaced out.” They may even have trouble staying organized or remembering directions or that they have been assigned homework. But much of this is broken down by Nadeau, who believes girls are less likely to be referred to as having ADHD because they tend to cause fewer problems in the classroom; socialized to “please their teachers and parents,” says Nadeau, girls can be very good at compensating for the disorder, making it much harder to spot. When teachers do see it, she believes, the behavior is often mistaken for immaturity or lack of academic ability rather than ADHD.
The following are cues that may suggest your child is suffering with ADHD at school:
• Nonstop Talking
A student that’s constantly talking with her friends may not be a sign that she’s a social butterfly – but that she might be exhibiting ADHD. This student may also keep talking “accidentally” after being asked to stop, even though she may not mean to be defiant. Further, a girl with ADHD may also impulsively interrupt a lesson, while a boy might leave his seat continually; many girls with ADHD express their restlessness verbally.
• Friendship “Issues”
A student that barges into a group and, more often than not, finds herself unwelcome may also be exhibiting signs of ADHD. As unfortunate as it may seem, girls with ADHD tend to struggle to fit in with peers; indeed, they can be talkative and engaging/jovial, but by the end of a week they may not boast many friends because they got too “bossy” or interrupted too much. Additionally, a girl with ADHD may be slow to pick up on social cues and may even be verbally aggressive when she feels frustrated – conversely, boys suffering from ADHD are less likely to suffer rejection from peers. The rules for boys in these circles of social interaction are less stringent, with games that are more physical in nature; for girls with ADHD, self-esteem can take quite the pummeling if they don’t receive assistance and guidance.
• Difficulty Paying Attention
Sure, this is a classic ADHD symptom, generally speaking…but in girls, the tip-off is normally when one has difficulty listening and retaining multistep directions. Finding it difficult to stay tuned in when the teacher is instructing for several minutes at a clip is often a sign of the disorder.
• Exceptional Messiness
A very visible sign of a girl struggling with ADHD may be a disorganized desk or backpack, and she may also exhibit issues with homework and classroom routine (i.e. not being able to keep her papers in order or find a pencil when needed). Of course, all kids tend to be “sloppy” at times – but in girls, the frequency and degree of that may be a clue.
• Unfinished Work
Teachers are at a disadvantage with girls that may have ADHD in that they don’t always realize how much they are struggling to finish assignments. They may appear studious and shy in the classroom and don’t often stand out so far as teachers are concerned – but educators should take note of girls who constantly fail to finish classroom assignments or tests in the allotted time, even though they may seem to understand the material.
As a parent reading through these academic-centric signs, you may find yourself thinking, “These are definitely issues my daughter’s teacher has mentioned in the past!” If this is the case, now is the time to initiate a dialogue with her teachers; ask them what they are noticing at school and perhaps follow up with a school psychologist. You can be the link to helping her find the success in school, at home, and in life that she so rightfully deserves.