ADHD, or Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, is perhaps one of the most well-researched disorders relating to childhood and adolescent mental health in the world. And while we know so much about this disorder now, not too long ago there were plenty of gaps in our understanding. One of those gaps includes how ADHD presents itself in women, since women with ADHD were often misdiagnosed or completely ignored because ADHD was initially believed to mostly affect men.
Since ADHD was believed to mainly affect men, for decades the scientific research focused on symptoms of ADHD in men, particularly in young boys, completely overlooking the effects that this disorder has on young girls and women. Today however, we know that ADHD is not primarily a “male” disorder, but that on average, men and women simply show different symptoms.
To start off, ADHD is a behavior disorder that is typically characterized by either hyperactivity, impulsivity, the inability to concentrate, or any combination of these symptoms. Symptoms usually begin to appear by the age of 7, often when the pressure to concentrate begins to increase as a child goes through elementary school.
With the correct diagnosis at an early age, treatment that is tailored to an individual’s age, medical history, symptoms, and other factors can greatly decrease the severity of symptoms and therefore decrease how much their behavior interferes with their life and development. Early diagnosis and treatment basically reduces the life impact that ADHD has on someone, and since young women are often missed when it comes to screening, they are at a greater disadvantage when it comes to managing ADHD.
The Different Types of ADHD
There are currently 3 major types of ADHD according to the Johns Hopkins Medicine center. They are:
- ADHD, impulsive/hyperactive type. This is perhaps the least common type of ADHD, consisting of both impulsive and hyperactive behaviors without any other behavioral symptoms.
- ADHD, inattentive and distractible type. This type is characterized by difficulty remaining attentive and being easily distracted without any impulsive or hyperactive behaviors. It is also commonly referred to as ADD, or Attention-Deficit Disorder.
- ADHD Combined. ADHD combined is the most common form of ADHD and is a combination of the above two types of impulsivity, hyperactive behavior, being inattentive, and easily distractible.
Although specialists still are not 100% certain of the root cause of ADHD, the research that we currently have on it suggests a genetic link may be the cause for the disorder. Low levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine is a common physiological indicator among children with ADHD, and some studies have indicated that the parts of the brain responsible for attention, social judgement, and movement, have a lower metabolism in those with ADHD.
The Common Signs of ADHD in Young Girls
Here is a list of some of the most common ADHD signs and symptoms experienced by young girls and women. Keep in mind that because of the different types of ADHD, it is unlikely that someone will experience every single one of these symptoms, and experiencing one or two of these symptoms may not automatically indicate that ADHD is the underlying cause. The common signs are:
- Being withdrawn
- Blurting out things without thinking or interrupting others frequently in conversation
- Requiring extra thinking time to process information or directions
- Constantly shifting focus from one activity to another
- Appearing to get upset easily
- Appearing shy
- Crying more easily than others
- Struggling to complete tasks
- Having poor time management
- Appearing messy, both in terms of appearance and their physical space
- Often slams doors
- Seeming to make “careless” mistakes a lot
- Exaggerated emotional responses (this is part of hyperactivity)
- Extremely talkative, with an infinite amount of things to say
- Is a bad listener
- Is extremely sensitive to noise, emotions, and even types of fabrics
- Forgets things a lot
- Seems unmotivated
- Is easily distracted
- Frequently daydreams
Any girl who has ADHD may experience a range of the above symptoms, however it is important to keep in mind that every individual is different. Not all people with ADHD act in the exact same way, so while it may be easy to spot someone with the stereotypical symptom of hyperactivity, history has shown that it is all to easy to overlook someone whose symptoms make them more withdrawn, as has been the case for women for a long time.
Signs of ADHD in Women
- Your desk at work is piled with clutter and your home is disorganized. And even after cleaning, it is difficult to maintain order before things become messy once again
- Working at an office is difficult because of the noise and people around you
- You avoid parties and social gatherings because the noise is overwhelming and the experience makes you feel shy
- You struggle to stay focused during conversations when you are not talking, or when the topic is something that doesn’t excite you
- Social rules may seem complicated and hard to understand
- You have a long list of unpaid bills and struggle to organize your finances
- You use your shopping habit to compensate for other problems, like buying new clothes because you have no more clean ones
- You spend lots of time trying to organize yourself, however it doesn’t seem to work
- You avoid inviting guests to your house because of the clutter
- You feel you can’t keep up with society’s expectations of you as a woman, like remembering birthdays and organizing your kid’s lives
- Crowded places overwhelm you, and activities like grocery shopping are difficult because you struggle to organize a list. This can include regularly forgetting key ingredients for your meals while out shopping
- You know that you are just as smart as the people you went to school with, however you feel that you haven’t been able to complete as many things as they have
- It is difficult to relax
- You get overwhelmed with life easily
Why ADHD in Women Is Often Not Diagnosed
Whether it is ADHD symptoms in young girls or in grown women, what has happened frequently in the past is that the symptoms of ADHD are simply understood as being part of that individual’s character and personality rather than as part of a behavior disorder, or are misdiagnosed as being part of a depression or anxiety disorder.
A young girl may be labeled as simply being a chatty person, or a dreamer, or someone who is constantly distracted or disorganized and will often not be identified as being ADHD when compared with a child who is hyperactive and impulsive. This is also because, while boys with ADHD are much more likely to experience the combined type of ADHD that includes all of the symptoms of hyperactivity, impulsive behavior, distractibility, and inattentiveness, girls are more likely to experience the inattentive type of ADHD that includes inattentiveness and distractibility without the hyperactivity and impulsive behavior.
A common experience of anyone with ADHD, be they male of female, is the eventual feeling of being overwhelmed and exhausted. This can include feeling like they have no control over their lives, like even small tasks are huge obstacles, and having low self-esteem and high levels of stress. While those who are successfully diagnosed with ADHD will have these experiences attributed to their disorder and will have access to medications and therapies to help, women in particular who are not diagnosed and who seek professional help for feeling overwhelmed will often be misdiagnosed with depression or anxiety.
This will in turn lead to the prescription of medications and therapies that do not successfully target the root of the problem and can leave women feeling like they have even less control over their lives, leading to higher levels of stress.
Because of the historical focus on ADHD in boys, the general awareness of what ADHD looks like among the public consists of behaviors relating to hyperactivity and impulsiveness, which understandably misses out the more common symptoms experienced by women with ADHD.
Additional Effects and Co-Occurring Conditions of ADHD
Women who grow up without being diagnosed as ADHD will obviously bring all of their childhood and adolescent behaviors with them. This can often include low self-esteem which can lead to mood disorders such as depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and even obesity.
Young women with undiagnosed ADHD are also at a higher risk for things such as smoking and substance abuse disorders as well as teenage pregnancy. Later in life, women with ADHD often won’t get the chance to be diagnosed until one of their children presents symptoms that require an expert opinion. A woman with ADHD has a 50% chance of passing the disorder onto their children, and as grown women, they are also more likely to go through divorce and become single mothers who have to raise their likely ADHD children alone.
Combine this with the fact that women with undiagnosed ADHD are more likely to experience financial crises and underemployment, and we can begin to see the effect that ADHD has on the lives of women who do not receive a diagnosis for their disorder.
If the above descriptions match yourself, a family member, or someone that you know then it may be a good idea to speak with them about how they are feeling and consider whether talking to a specialist may be the right decision.