ADHD in girls

Does ADHD show up differently in little girls?

Yes, it does. For females, the symptoms come up later and are different than in males.

By Fatima Malik

                       “It’s difficult for girls to be diagnosed unless they behave like hyperactive boys.” 

 Dr. Ellen Littman, the author of Understanding Girls with ADHD (quote from an article by Maria Yagoda – The Atlantic)      

The truth in these words rang in my ears a little longer than I’d like.

My first thought is, it’s unfair. My second thought is, it’s unfortunate that everyone is still learning about ADHD even though it’s been around for so long. 

ADHD symptoms: boys vs girls

For girls, not only are the symptoms different, the onset of these symptoms is later than in boys. 

The misunderstandings around ADHD in girls are primarily due to early clinical studies of ADHD in the 1970s. “These studies were based on really hyperactive young white boys who were taken to clinics,” Littman says. “The diagnostic criteria were developed based on those studies. As a result, those criteria overrepresent the symptoms you see in young boys, making it difficult for girls to be diagnosed unless they behave like hyperactive boys.” 

Clearly, ADHD is not the same in boys and girls. With girls, it’s less hyperactive, more forgetful, scattered and disorganized. As they grow older, these girls end up becoming anxious or depressed due to the lack of their ability to “hold it all together.” The misunderstanding around ADHD in girls has left around 4 million girls and women undiagnosed, which led to them suffering from anxiety and depression for years.

For boys, it has been observed that symptoms of ADHD decrease as they hit puberty. So, for a long time, it was thought that symptoms of ADHD show up early in life around age seven and decrease by age twelve. But the opposite is true for girls. For girls, symptoms intensify when they hit puberty as estrogen levels increase in their bodies. 

Most girls’ symptoms are highlighted when they go to college or become independent with no parental or school schedules to guide them. Because ADHD is a self-regulatory issue, the symptoms become apparent then.

Diagnoses for girls with ADHD

I know the 1970s sounds like a long time ago, which may be true, but a 2009 study conducted by The University of Queensland found that girls displaying ADHD symptoms were less likely to be referred for mental health services.

Growing up with these symptoms into adulthood has been known to be an extremely embarrassing personal failure for females. In addition, females diagnosed later in life had already suffered the symptoms enough to cause another psychiatric disorder like alcohol abuse, major depression, hypomanic episodes etc.

Hyper-activeness vs Self-regulation

Whether it’s the 1970s or 2020s, the problem remains the lack of awareness of ADHD symptoms in girls. The name itself – Attention-Deficit/ Hyperactive Disorder – makes it sound like the symptoms have to have a hyperactive disorder. 

Meanwhile, ADHD is primarily a self-regulation problem caused by the executive dysfunction in the brain. 

Not to mention the lack of dopamine which only adds to the anxiety and depression.

Having girls diagnosed early and recognizing these symptoms when they show is very important for the mental health of these girls. 

As parents, we have many responsibilities surrounding our children, but by far, the most important one is mental health. More than grades, or manners, or habits, your child’s mental health is the top priority because that is what will determine the quality of their life as they go into adulthood, regardless of the college degree or the job they hold.

If you’re not sure your child has ADHD, please call us: 1-866-503-7454. With help in cities across Canada, Kitchener, Cambridge, Waterloo, Saskatoon, Windsor, Victoria, Mississauga, Brampton, Oakville etc.


Positive Kids
Author: Positive Kids

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