Mary Adams, a 13-year-old from Orange County, CA, has always struggled in school. She’s shy, quiet, and often daydreams in class. Whether doing math homework or reading a novel, she needs double the time of her peers. But for many years, her teachers didn’t notice she was falling behind.
“They said, ‘Mary is smart, she’ll do fine.’ But she felt stupid,” says her mom, Shelley Adams. “She was 7 at the time.” At age 9, Adams got a private evaluation for Mary. After a 3-hour test, she was diagnosed with ADHD.
Like Mary, many girls struggling with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) go unnoticed by parents, teachers, and other adults. On the surface, they may be no different from other children -- getting easily distracted or forgetting their homework. But if these symptoms last longer than 6 months, it could signal a problem.
A growing body of research suggests the number of girls with ADHD is much higher than anyone thought even 5 years ago. Experts say the disorder affects boys and girls nearly equally, but more than twice as many boys are diagnosed and treated than girls.
Why They’re Missed
Experts say the difference isn’t that ADHD is less common for girls, but that the symptoms boys show tend to be more obvious. One national study found that most parents and teachers thought the disorder was more of a problem for boys. “Teachers tend to dismiss the less obvious signs of ADHD in girls because they’re typically not disrupting class,” says Naomi Steiner, MD, a pediatrician at Boston University.
Girls with ADHD may not be hyperactive, impulsive, or disruptive, Steiner says. Instead, they tend to daydream, have trouble following instructions, and make careless mistakes on homework and tests. They may even hide their condition, or try to make up for their difficulties, because they’re too embarrassed to ask for help. And that makes identifying their ADHD harder.
Without a diagnosis, girls with ADHD go longer without treatment, which means they lose ground fast in school. “They might not be misbehaving but they’re performing below their capabilities, and that’s really discouraging,” Steiner says.
If they slip too far behind, it can be hard to catch up.
Studies show more girls than boys need to repeat a grade in school. They’re also more likely to feel it’s hard to focus on schoolwork and get things done.
Mary is a classic example. “In third grade, Mary spent a minimum of 2 hours on homework each night,” her mom says. Then she’d cry from the frustration of not getting it right. She was anxious, stressed, depressed, and she dreaded going to school.
Paying Attention to Inattention
In spite of the difficulties, there are specialists who are trained to spot ADHD in girls and boys alike. Your pediatrician can refer you to an expert who has experience diagnosing and treating children with the disorder.
Early diagnosis is ideal, but getting one at any age can open the door to much-needed services and understanding.
“It doesn’t give them a way out, but it makes them understand how their brains are different,” Steiner says. “Then they can change ‘I’m stupid’ to ‘My brain works different,’ a far more empowering message.”
Adams says she tries to remind her daughter than there are a lot of CEOs and other successful people who have ADHD. “They tend to be very out-of-the-box thinkers. That doesn’t conform to society or the school system, but it can lead to success in real life.”