What I Wish I’d Known About Girls With ADHD


(Photo: Courtesy of Lisa Aro)

Daydreamy, artistic, compassionate, and outgoing, but ultimately distracted, our oldest daughter Rachel (seen left) had bigger things to think about than math, science, history, and language arts. We spent hours on homework each night, making up the instruction that was lost to her in the classroom as her mind drifted to loftier pursuits. She escaped into a more enticing world, where she planned, wrote, and directed her next recess play, casting characters in her mind, creating costumes and sets — it would be a masterpiece of a performance.

When I went to our daughter’s fourth grade teacher with the concern that my oldest had ADHD, she quickly shut me down.

“No,” she insisted. “Rachel is too nice and tries too hard to have ADHD.”

Both were true. Despite her intelligence, Rachel had to make a monumental effort every single day to just scratch the surface of what seemed to come so easily to other students.

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Unfortunately, I trusted her teacher to be an authority on the subject of ADHD. It would be another two years before frustration and concerns about middle school would push me to take her to our family doctor for help.

It turns out I am not alone in my situation. A recent Harris Interactive survey pointed out gaping holes in the identification and diagnosis of ADHD in tween girls and confirms that misconceptions and stereotypes are largely to blame.

The survey results echoed my own personal experience, including the finding that nearly 50 percent of moms with tween girls diagnosed with ADHD first considered their daughter’s behavior to be part of adolescence. What’s more, 59 percent hesitated to consult a doctor because they thought their daughters would outgrow this behavior.

I was that mom.

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I thought of my daughter’s ADHD traits as something that would change as she got older. I saw what her teacher saw: a girl making a herculean effort, a kind spirit, someone with the desire to be good and succeed. I ignored and dismissed the struggle because she didn’t fit the ADHD stereotypes: out of control, defiant, unorganized, fidgety, unfocused, and aggressive. But these stereotypes were part of the problem.

One reason for the disparity in diagnosis between girls and boys is how differently they manifest hyperactivity (see Hunter, then Jaren to the right). Chattiness and daydreaming are often dismissed as normal girl behavior rather than signs of hyperactivity, which they are. In addition, of the subtypes of ADHD — hyperactive/impulsive, inattentive, and combined — more girls are diagnosed with inattentive type. Stereotypes of ADHD revolve around how boys exhibit symptoms, and those symptoms are largely disruptive in a classroom, easier to spot, and more likely to get teachers talking to parents. Without the stereotypical markers, many girls go undiagnosed for years.

Even when I did finally bring up ADHD with our family doctor, I approached the subject with great hesitation, essentially ending the conversation before it even really began with comments about it being my own imagination. But he was quick to jump in and assure me that I was not overreacting by bringing this to his attention. Thank goodness he was both knowledgeable and reassuring in treating my daughter and comforting me.

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I also fall into the 60 percent of moms in the survey who wish they had recognized the symptoms of ADHD in their daughters and acted on it sooner. Hindsight makes it easy to see what a difference diagnosis and intervention can make. Personal experience makes that even clearer. After our oldest daughter was diagnosed, we immediately saw the positive effects of medication and understanding.

We couldn’t help but look around at her siblings. Our youngest daughter, almost a carbon copy of our oldest, was next to see our pediatrician. Our thought: If Rachel has ADHD then Mary has to have it, too. We were right. While our oldest was 12 when she was diagnosed, her youngest sister was only 6. What a difference having that diagnosis, understanding, and intervention has made for her over the years. (You’ll see them both below in our recent family photo — Rachel is at the top and Mary is the hugger to the right).

Understanding the truth about ADHD and girls is critical, especially when going into the teen years. Shame and guilt, depression and anxiety, self-harm and eating disorders have all been found to be more prevalent in young woman with ADHD than in their peers. No parent wants to face these kind of struggles with their children. They’re heart-wrenching, scary, and intimidating. I know, having walked this road with each of my four daughters in one way or another. There is no doubt, however, that ignoring these situations and feelings is worse and dangerous.

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I have to admit it was reaffirming to read the results of the Harris survey and realize I’m not alone in my experience as a mom of girls with ADHD. But it was also disheartening to find that over a decade after my oldest was diagnosed, so many young girls are still struggling with ADHD alone, without help or intervention.

To know that so many moms are still struggling, wondering if this behavior is normal, hoping their daughters will outgrow it, and debating whether to talk to their doctors saddens me. I know that is a lonely and fretful place to be. It also makes clear the long road ahead of us in making sure these stereotypes, myths, and misunderstandings are replaced with knowledge, acceptance, and early intervention.

By Lisa Aro, Everyday Health Columnist


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This article originally appeared on EverydayHealth.com: What I Wish I’d Known About Girls With ADHD