Here’s Why Teen Girls With ADHD Often Go Undiagnosed

Why Teen Girls With ADHD Often Go Undiagnosed

Takeaway: Adolescents boys and girls have trouble with ADHD, but find different ways of dealing with their challenges. For example, if a boy gets bored in class, he’s likely to become disruptive, while a girl might simply start daydreaming. So, a girl’s desire to fit in and stay out of trouble means her ADHD is more likely to go undiagnosed. The solution? Consult a specialist if you notice your daughter having problems at school or in her social life.  

ADHD is a way of describing a difference in how some children’s brains pay attention to the world.

Psychologists describe ADHD (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) as a ‘neurodevelopmental disorder.’ That is, it’s a specific change in the way a child thinks and behaves because of the way her brain develops. This alternate brain wiring makes it hard for children with ADHD to sit still, pay attention to things, and focus for long periods. And since these are crucial life skills, children with ADHD often have more daily challenges than many of their classmates. For example, they might find it harder to pay attention in class or stay patient (and calm) during an argument. And so it’s more difficult to keep up in school and nurture friendships. That’s why it’s so important to diagnose and help children with ADHD before these challenges affect their self-esteem and mental health. (Learn more about ADHD.)

Thankfully, we can usually recognise the signs of ADHD if we know what to look for.

Children with ADHD have varying degrees of three core traits: inattentiveness, hyperactivity, and impulsiveness. And you can spot signs of these traits if you know what to look for. For example, inattentive children usually make careless mistakes with their homework, seem to drift during conversations, and are often late for things. Meanwhile, impulsive or hyperactive children might fidget/squirm, move around a lot, be impatient taking turns during games, and interrupt conversations without thinking.

There’s a catch, though. Girls with ADHD often behave differently to boys with ADHD. Which means they’re often missed.

Some of the core ADHD traits were initially discovered in the early 1900s (although they didn’t use the term ‘ADHD’ back then). But they always seemed to show up in boys rather than girls, so physicians assumed that ADHD was a boy-specific issue. Now, though, we know this isn’t true. Girls have ADHD as well, but it affects them differently. For example, a boy with ADHD might be disruptive in class, hand in homework late, and be boisterous with his friends. But a girl with ADHD deals with those same issues differently. In a classroom, she’s more likely to daydream than be disruptive. With homework, she’ll struggle but take extra care to finish it anyway. And with friends, she’ll more likely be talkative and scatterbrained than boisterous. Both the boy and girl have the same brain differences, but the boy’s behaviour is more outwardly visible. So it gets noticed quicker.

It’s not just that girls experience ADHD differently from boys. They cope with it differently, too. This is especially true with adolescents .

Adolescents girls usually deal with their ADHD challenges differently from boys. Let’s take the homework example we mentioned briefly earlier. A boy and girl with ADHD both have homework due the next day. They struggle to focus on it and don’t feel like going on. But where the boy might shrug it off and head out to play, the girl is more likely to obsess over it and power through anyway.

Girls are harder on themselves because they feel more pressure to ‘fit in’ than boys do. But this means they mask their ADHD unintentionally.

The girl’s response to the homework challenge seems more responsible than the boy’s, so she’s less likely to be noticed. Sure, she was anxious and stressed, but at least she put in the effort, right? This assumption is disastrous for girls with ADHD. They do such a good job fitting in that people only notice how determined, proactive, and gritty they are. And they miss the crucial fact that these traits compensate for serious underlying issues. The result? girls often end up masking their ADHD unintentionally.

There’s more, though. Adolescents girls often feel the brunt of ADHD in a way boys usually don’t.

As we’ve seen, girls with ADHD end up suffering in silence while boys are more likely to be noticed and helped. But ADHD also complicates a girl’s social life in a way it usually doesn’t for a boy. Boys tend to bond over activities, so they can afford to be distracted and hyperactive. (If they’re playing sports, these traits might even be an advantage). In contrast, girls rely more on conversation and have nuanced friendships that need careful tending. For example, if a girl impulsively says the wrong thing at the wrong time, it could have a ripple effect across her entire network of friends. Being impulsive and hyperactive is less acceptable and more damaging to her than to a boy. Also, boys tend to take out their frustrations on other people, while girls turn their frustrations onto themselves. So, a girl struggling with ADHD is more likely than a boy to develop anxiety, depression, or problems with self-esteem.

So, what can you do to help? We’ve found that parents do best when they consult a specialist.

It’s tough to know how to help your daughter if she’s struggling. And you might even worry that labelling your child with ADHD will hold her back. But getting her diagnosed can be such a relief because she’ll then know that there’s a name for the challenges she’s facing. And she can stop thinking that it’s somehow all her fault. So, if you’re concerned about your child’s social behaviour or other challenges consider asking a specialist to help you understand what to do. At The Ed Psych Practice, we offer face-to-face and online assessments, consultation, advice, and problem-solving strategies for parents, nurseries, schools, and universities in London. We have psychologists, paediatricians, and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support. To consult with us or set up an appointment:

Want to see how else you can help your child? You might enjoy some of our other posts.

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