When thinking of a child with ADD, most people will picture an easily-distracted hyperactive child... long on energy, and short on attention span. And although that is sometimes the case, that description accurately describes only a portion of children diagnosed with ADD - and very rarely describes the behavior of girls with the condition.
In fact, many people think Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) is a boy's disease. It is commonly believed that it occurs at least twice as often in boys as in girls. Although it is true that boys are more often diagnosed, the rates are actually about the same in both genders. Boys more often have the variety called Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) - and that's what tends to get their problem noticed.
Parents, teachers, and even health professionals tend to picture the classic case of ADD as a boy with a lot of hyperactivity. The average girl with ADD acts differently. In girls, the disorganization and distraction results in lack of activity--they are just too confused to get things started, and instead are often described as daydreamers.
This is in stark contrast to the boys. Boys' distractibility is expressed as impulsivity--a flurry of activity. While both genders have trouble learning the nuances of social interactions, the results for each are different. Girls end up shy and withdrawn - they don't like the negative reactions they get when they don't clue in to the nuances. Boys on the other hand are more likely to proceed with social behavior that is considered inappropriate. While they are bewildered when they get negative reactions, they continue.
A girl's environment is more likely to be disorganized -- their desk, their bedroom, their backpack. Although both genders have problems in this area, as girls with ADD hit the teen years the increased organizational demands of junior high and high school become too much. Grades suffer, and they may become tired and disheartened by poor school performance. The girls with hyperactivity may throw themselves into social relationships to compensate. They may be described as boy-crazy or party girls. ADD and ADHD girls alike begin to show more risky sexual and other behaviors. They may use drugs or alcohol both due to increasing impulsivity and to self-medicate. Shoplifting, teen pregnancy, and eating disorders are also found more often in females with ADD.
Why the Symptoms Are Different
The differences in actual environmental disorganization are clearly due to social factors. But, no one knows for certain why there is such a large difference in hyperactive behavior between the two genders. It could be that girls have more pressure to conform. Wild, loud social behavior in a boy may be tolerated. But, a girl may be more pressured to be quiet and behave. Likewise for girls, the impulsive actions may get a more negative reaction from adults and peers alike. In fact, it has been found that girls with ADHD (those who do express the hyperactive qualities) have more negative social consequences than boys. This is true even though the boys have more hyperactivity.
From a physiology perspective, researchers have found girls' brains differ from those of boys in several ways - including weight, size, and the relative proportion of certain structures in the brain. This difference may explain why males and females generally display different strengths and weaknesses. It may also account for the different types of ADHD symptoms they display. Research in this area is ongoing.
In general, girls are much more likely to have ADD without the hyperactive component. This is in contrast to ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) that boys tend to have. Because a girl isn't disruptive in the classroom, her problem does not create the same need for an immediate solution. As a result, her inability to focus and complete work is likely to be overlooked as a symptom of a more complex issue - and instead is blamed more on lack of discipline or motivation on her part.
A girl with ADD has fewer learning problems in early grades than her male counterparts. Boys often get diagnosed through evaluation of learning problems. Girls with ADD, especially those with high intelligence, may actually be good students and/or well-behaved - and as a result raise absolutely no alarms that anything may be amiss.
When girls with ADD do not conform to social roles, it is often described in gender-specific terms, rather than as a medical problem. They are labeled tomboys or flighty as girls, and boy-crazy or party girls as teens. Again, girls are more likely to meet social pressure to conform, rather than recognition and treatment of a disease.
Often girls with ADD are misdiagnosed with depression. The symptoms of ADD and depression overlap: low energy levels, disorganization, social withdrawal, and trouble concentrating. Even more confusing, the unrecognized ADD can lead to major coping problems, which in turn lead to actual depression on top of the ADD.
Typical signs of ADD in girls include:
- Difficulty maintaining focus
- Easily distracted
- Disorganized and “messy”
- Difficulty completing tasks
- Slow to process information and directions (It may even appear that they aren’t hearing you)
- Often late (poor time management)
It's easy for a girl to read this and see many of these characteristics in herself. Being unprepared, shy, or daydreamy is a part of every girl's life to some degree. However, if several of these behavioral descriptions apply, it may be worthwhile to have a formal evaluation. Even if it is determined that the behaviors are not due to ADD, reassurance will be gained just from knowing. And if ADD is suspected, she can receive treatment or change her environment to maximize her potential. Often times, simply understanding ADD’s impact in one’s life relieves girls of a huge burden and frees them from the damaging labels of “spacey,” “careless,” “unmotivated,” “stupid” or “lazy.” They simply have ADD and their future feels much brighter.