Women and ADHD
How ADHD typically affects women, and how to cope with it.
Roots in Childhood
Many women with ADHD remember having these issues for a long time. “A lot of women tell me that (in school) they would look straight at the teacher so they wouldn’t get in trouble, but had no idea what was going on,” Nadeau says. “They are underfunctioning, but bright ... their symptoms are more subtle.”
ADHD is one of the most commonly diagnosed behavioral disorders in children, and it is a chronic, often lifelong condition. It affects an estimated 3% to 9% of U.S. children.
The hallmarks of ADHD are hyperactivity, lack of focus, and impulsive behavior.
But there are different shades of ADHD. The most pronounced is the hyperactive-impulsive form, where children have trouble sitting still and completing tasks like school work. They may be overly emotional or randomly blurt out inappropriate comments. Another type of ADHD is inattentive, with symptoms like lack of focus, forgetfulness, boredom, difficulty with organization, and daydreaming.
Though there are always exceptions to the rule, many experts say boys tend more toward hyperactive-impulsive and girls toward inattentive symptoms. “Females tend to be more the inattentive type and internally distracted by thoughts and guys tend to be more hyperactive,” says Fran Walfish, PsyD, child and adult psychotherapist in Beverly Hills, Calif. “I have seen boys who are dreamy and some girls who are hyperactive, but those are the exceptions.”
Women's ADHD sometimes gets overlooked until college, when they begin to show a lack of self-regulation and self-management, Rostain says.
“Risks for them include things like being influenced by a sorority or the recreational drug scene,” he says. “And they are not as wild as the guys [with ADHD], but compared to other girls, they are more risk-taking.”
The underlying mechanisms of ADHD are the same in males and females. Both have difficulties with planning, organization, recalling details, and paying attention.
But how ADHD plays out in symptoms is where the gender differences often lie. And the reason for that is likely social.
Because inattention is much more subtle than hyperactivity, this may be why boys are almost three times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with ADHD. By the time they reach adulthood however, that gap shrinks to two to one. This is likely because girls are often diagnosed later in life, compared to boys.
Girls may "slip through the cracks" and get diagnosed later, Walfish says, because they may be able to cover up their ADHD symptoms.