When most people think of ADD/ADHD, they usually picture a rowdy, hyperactive boy with a short attention span. This is because a lot of the most obvious boys with ADD/ADHD act out their traits as a flurry of scattered activity, visible distractibility in school, or disruptive and inappropriate social behavior. This tends to get noticed. The actual rates of ADD/ADHD, however, are about the same in both genders according to experts.
The way that most girls experience or express their ADD/ADHD does not tend to get noticed – which is why it is so often missed. They are usually diagnosed as having the “primarily inattentive” type of ADD/ADHD. They may be sensitive and quiet and labeled as spacey or daydreamers. Some common challenges in inattentive type ADD/ADHD are difficulties getting started, being forgetful, spacing out, disorganization of thoughts and the environment, and feeling completely overwhelmed. Even when girls are diagnosed with the hyperactive type of ADD/ADHD, their hyperactivity usually manifests as excessive talking, intense emotions, and quick verbal reactivity, rather than the acting out behaviors often seen in boys.
While both genders can be the victims of bullying and rejection by their classmates, studies have shown that girls with ADD/ADHD experience more isolation and feel more rejected than boys. (Understanding Girls with ADHD by Kathleen Nadeau, Ph.D., Ellen Littman, Ph.D., and Patricia Quinn, M.D) This may be because relationships between girls are usually highly verbal and centered on social interactions while relationships between boys are often centered on sports, other physical activities, or playing video games. Sophisticated communication skills are often not as crucial for teen age boys.
When ADD/ADHD causes distractibility, forgetfulness, or impulsiveness, it’s pretty difficult to follow a fast conversation or respond appropriately to subtle social nuances. Girls may receive critical reactions from their friends because of what they inadvertently say (or don’t say) in a social context. This can be devastating if it happens often enough and can create self-doubt and anxiety around taking social risks in the future.
Academically, even highly intelligent girls with ADD/ADHD may end up working longer and harder than their non-ADD friends. I know quite a few high school girls who frequently stay up all night to write a paper or study for a test. They can become very discouraged when their grades don’t reflect their efforts. It may also seem like everybody else can get their work done early enough to go to bed at a decent hour, even with after school activities. Some reasons that studying can take so long without the desired results are perfectionism, not knowing how to start, feeling overwhelmed, difficulty with sustaining focus, or being unable to stay linear in their approach without veering off in all sorts of other directions.
Girls with ADHD need to feel accepted and competent. Even if school is a challenge, parents can help by getting them involved in out of school activities where they can express and develop their talents and strengths. One of my clients struggled in school but was great with horses. She was involved in a program every weekend where she helped disabled kids ride horses. Another was a wonderful artist. Even though there were not many opportunities to take art classes in high school, she took private drawing classes after school. She even had a show of her drawings in a coffee house. How’s that for gaining a wider perspective?
As well as developing competence outside of school, learning organizational skills and developing systems and structures for school work is important for self-esteem. These skills can be learned with a therapist who specializes in ADHD, an ADHD coach, or a special program in school. Learning these skills from someone other than the parent seems critical for most of the teenage girls I have worked with. They are trying to develop more independence and it is normal for them to push against the parent who is trying to help.
With appropriate support, help in developing structures and systems, medical treatment if necessary, and psychological help if she is showing signs of anxiety or depression, your daughter can successfully move from adolescence to young adulthood. There is a light at the end of the tunnel!