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Even in ADD, Girls Are Different than Boys

Girls with ADD may be in trouble, even when they don’t cause much trouble.

Sarah was at college before her ADD was diagnosed. She had done very poorly in her first semester, and she sought help to accomplish the things she wanted to accomplish. She was always overwhelmed. Even though she had always been anxious to do well, her family thought Sarah was irresponsible, and she believed them. Even good friends teased and called her “space cadet” or “airhead.” Sarah learned to laugh along, but secretly she was ashamed and frightened, until she learned what the problem was. Why did Sarah struggle for so long, now that “everybody knows” about ADD?

The simple answer is that, when it comes to ADD, girls are different than boys. One estimate is that 7.5% of all children have some form of ADD/ADHD. Experts have thought that ADHD occurs in three times as many boys as girls. Recently, however, more girls with ADD are being identified as specific research is done on the types of ADD and how they show up in women and girls.

ADD/ADHD can express as inattentive type, hyperactive/impulsive type, or a combination of inattentive and hyperactive.

Hyperactive/impulsive type ADHD is characterized by an inability to sit still when sitting still is required, a tendency to blurt out in class, and poor impulse control that hurts relationships at school and home. This type is simply impossible to overlook.

Hyperactive and combination types of ADHD seem to be more frequent in boys. These children often disrupt class or respond impulsively to correction, which leads to referrals to professionals. The few girls who have been diagnosed with ADHD are more likely to have this type.

Inattentive type symptoms can be seen in both boys and girls. These children may seem unusually distracted, untidy, or late with assignments. They frequently are accused of not listening. While these behaviors may cause frustration and tension for the child and her loved ones, they usually don’t disrupt class or prompt parent-teacher conferences.

Most girls with ADD, it seems, have the inattentive type. They are less likely to behave in ways that cause inconvenience to others, so they go undiagnosed.

Sarah had been an honor roll student in elementary school. When she entered middle school, her grades began to slide, but since she was “a good kid,” her parents and teachers thought she just needed to get organized. Sarah’s self-esteem took a real beating in high school, when she received her first F. (She was surprised. She had thought she was doing okay. Her family thought she was being dishonest with them.) Finally, as a young college student with the power to access resources for herself, Sarah got help, both for the ADD and for the low self esteem that it had caused.

As parents, we can’t spare our children their growing pains, but we can put a stop to unnecessary suffering. Of course, all people exhibit some ADHD behaviors some of the time. For instance, it’s normal – and desirable – that young children have impressive amounts of energy. And it’s normal for a teenager to struggle with organization as s/he takes on new privileges and responsibilities. That’s why evaluation by the appropriate pediatrician, psychologist, or neurologist is important .

If your daughter is diagnosed with ADD, an effective treatment plan may include medication, but it will certainly involve support for learning new skills. Sarah found that medication helped her to pay attention and complete her work, but the medication couldn’t give her the knowledge or academic skills she’d missed in middle and high school. Sarah had a lot to catch up on. But she did, thanks to appropriate treatment, counseling, and practical support.

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