We all know kids with ADHD. They are the rowdy boys in class that fidget, talk a mile a minute, and struggle with assignments. They may run in the halls and otherwise cause disruptions in class. Because of this, parenting girls with ADHD isn’t a thing, right?
But, if you’ve come here suspecting that your daughter has ADHD, you may have already guessed that her symptoms are likely to be different. ADHD symptoms in girls vs boys, much like many other mental health issues, like autism, look different in girls.
What ADHD Looks Like in Boys
You know the classic symptoms of ADHD. It’s that boy who:
- Can’t sit still.
- Bothers neighbors and constantly interrupts.
- Bounces off the walls.
- Talks a mile-a-minute and won’t let anyone else talk.
But, since you’re here, you probably know that ADHD looks different in girls.
ADHD Symptoms in Girls vs Boys
When you go down the road to diagnosis with your daughter, you learn a few things.
First, many learning and social differences, like ADHD and autism, are categorized by how they affect other people. A boy with ADHD is disruptive. He is potentially insensitive to social situations. He is hyperactive. He gets in your face and has trouble identifying social boundaries.
Boys with ADHD can’t be ignored. They won’t let you ignore them.
But girls are different.
A girl with ADHD isn’t necessarily in your face. She isn’t necessarily disruptive. She may not cause trouble in class.
One thing that we’ve found as parents of girls with ADHD is that much of the diagnosis criteria for ADHD (and autism) is based on male presentations. You go down a checklist, and you check off the things that are true for your daughter.
But, when you get to the end of the checklist, sometimes you get a passing grade. Your daughter must not have ADHD because you only answered 25 questions with “yes” instead of the required 30.
What ADHD Looks Like in Girls
So, your daughter doesn’t get that ADHD diagnosis. She’s “normal.” She’s “fine.”
But then she turns 11, 12, or 13. And suddenly, things start breaking apart.
- Your daughter is disorganized.
- She forgets even the simplest tasks.
- She starts losing friends.
- She is angry all the time.
- She is irritable and stressed.
- She struggles to complete assignments.
- She forgets to turn in schoolwork.
- Her room is a disaster.
- She agonizes over homework.
- Maybe her grades start slipping.
- She loses everything.
- She is anxious and loses her self-confidence.
- She says she isn’t good at things she once excelled at.
- She’s spacy, ditzy, and daydreams.
- She is incredibly self-critical and a perfectionist.
What happened? Did something change in puberty that suddenly made your daughter unable to cope with the world?
Of course, that isn’t true. Your daughter likely had ADHD all along, just now with the extra pressure of adolescence, she can’t hide it anymore.
Girls Internalize and Mask Their ADHD Symptoms
Our American society is curious. We tell children, “girls are like this and boys are like that.”
We tell girls that they must please the people around them, almost at any cost. No one comes out and says this, but it’s there, always lurking in the subtext of every message to girls.
Girls with ADHD hear these messages too. Many of the messages that we tell girls sound like this: Girls are organized. Girls hold things together. Girls do what they are told. Girls are beautiful and carefree. Girls shouldn’t show their emotions. Girls shouldn’t be disruptive. Girls are good.
So, what a girl with ADHD does is try. She tries, so, so hard. She wants to live up to everyone’s expectations, and for many girls with ADHD, they can for a while.
But when things start to pile up, it gets overwhelming. Many girls breakdown under stress. They start having anxiety attacks. They start self-harming to get control. They turn to risky behavior or substance abuse to help cope with the pressure.
Some girls learn how to manage their ADHD symptoms on their own. They may set dozens of alarms a day to keep on top of tasks. They may obsess over studying and deadlines to ensure they keep their grades up. They may start showing OCD-like symptoms and symptoms of anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, or eating disorders. Some girls even consider suicide.
The picture of an undiagnosed teen girl with ADHD is not happy or healthy.
Our girls need support just as much as the boys, and maybe more so.
Symptoms of Girls with ADHD
The symptoms of ADHD in girls look similar and different to that of ADHD in boys. In general, there are three types of ADHD. Inattentive, hyperactive, and combined.
My daughters are “lucky” enough to have combined presentations of ADHD so that their ADHD diagnosis was possible. But many tests for ADHD forget that inattentive ADHD is a main category of ADHD, and most girls with ADHD tend to have the inattentive type.
- Frequent daydreams or “spacing out”
- Constant talking without allowing others to speak
- Frequent interrupting
- Difficulty completing assignments
- Losing things
- Forgetting things
- Messy room and belongings
- Sloppy handwriting
- Self-critical behavior and thoughts
- Picking at hair, nails, or skin
- Fidgeting and restlessness
- Being overly silly
- Trouble paying attention or remembering conversations
- Trouble with tests
- Struggles with turning things in on time
- Pervasive anxiety and low self-esteem
- Hyperfocus during enjoyable activities
In our house, it is the mental side of ADHD that is the scariest side of girls with ADHD. Watching bright, intelligent, and otherwise amazing girls struggle with thoughts of low self-worth and hatred for their talents and skills is heartbreaking.
You can read more about the symptoms of ADHD in girls here.
How to Diagnose a Girl with ADHD
ADHD is an invisible condition. You can’t scan a girl’s brain and see ADHD. There are a lot of different diagnostic tests for ADHD and not every healthcare provider will use the same test.
However, it’s best if the healthcare provider that you see is familiar with how ADHD presents in girls. Some providers may dismiss the issue or suggest that your daughter is just exhibiting signs of normal child behavior that she will grow out of. But if the provider is aware of the differences of ADHD in boys vs girls, then they will be better able to help your daughter.
ADHD is also a strange condition because it often goes along with other mental disorders. ADHD can look a lot like autism (and vice versa), OCD, and anxiety.
Girls with ADHD also tend to have more than one diagnosis. My eldest daughter was diagnosed with a mood dysregulation disorder in addition to ADHD. My middle daughter has suspected autism in addition to her ADHD. This makes ADHD diagnosis even trickier for girls.
For our family, it took about a year to diagnose my eldest daughter. And with my middle daughter, we’re still in the process of obtaining the right diagnosis for her.
As a parent, if you feel like something is off with your daughter, that she has ADHD, don’t give up, even if the school doesn’t agree, or family members don’t agree. Girls sometimes hide their symptoms with others and only show their struggles at home.
You know if something is different about your daughter, so don’t give up until she has the help she needs to thrive.