For many years, people thought of ADHD as a childhood issue that mostly affected boys. We now know that ADHD can persist into adulthood, and that women are just as likely to have it as men. But there can be big differences between how girls and boys experience ADHD.
Here are a few areas where ADHD in girls can be different from ADHD in boys.
Symptoms and Diagnosis of ADHD in Girls
Girls with ADHD tend to be less hyperactive and have less trouble with self-control than boys. So they’re usually less disruptive in class and at home. Instead, they may seem distracted or daydreamy. Doctors might refer to this as ADHD without hyperactivity. You might also hear it called ADD rather than ADHD. (ADD is technically one of the three subtypes of ADHD.)
Kids with ADHD who aren’t hyperactive stand out less than kids who are constantly in motion. So it’s easier to overlook their challenges. That’s partly why girls are diagnosed less frequently—at least in childhood.
Even when girls who have ADHD are hyperactive, it can look different than it does in boys. For example, girls may come across as overly sensitive or emotional. They might interrupt conversations and be very talkative more often than boys with ADHD are.
Coping Skills and Perfectionism
Girls with ADHD, more so than boys, often try to compensate for their symptoms by putting all of their energy into things they do well. But that outward success in one area can make it harder to notice their struggles in others.
Here’s an example. A teenage girl with ADHD is known for being a very strong writer, and it’s a source of pride for her. When she has a writing assignment, she gets hyperfocused and works overtime to get a high grade.
At the same time, she misplaces her take-home math test, forgets to walk the dog, and misses softball practice. Her grades are good, but her drive for success and her perfectionism create a lot of stress.
Read a personal story from a woman who worked so hard for perfect grades as a teen that her ADHD was overlooked.
Social Pressures and Low Self-Esteem
Many kids with ADHD struggle with making and keeping friends. But it can be even trickier for girls. Their social world can be more complicated than that of boys. Girls might feel more pressure to pay close attention to their friends’ feelings. Or they might feel like they have to pick up on subtle social cues, which is hard for many kids with ADHD.
Girls with ADHD often struggle with low self-esteem and feelings of shame. They’re also more likely than boys to blame themselves for problems caused by ADHD. A boy who failed a test might blame the teacher for giving such a tough exam. A girl is more likely to see it as a sign that she’s “just too stupid.”
Mental Health and ADHD
Kids with ADHD are at higher risk for mental health issues. As they reach puberty, girls with ADHD are more likely to struggle with depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and eating disorders than other girls.
Even though there are common struggles, every girl and young woman has her own experience of ADHD. Read how one young woman owned her ADHD. Hear about a special education teacher’s journey with ADHD. Find out why journalist Lisa Ling was relieved to get an ADHD diagnosis, and why Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles says ADHD is nothing to be ashamed of.
For more information, watch an expert discuss ADHD in boys vs. girls.