ADHD: 10 sneaky signs in girls you missed or misinterpreted
Updated: Apr 22
ADHD is dramatically underdiagnosed in young girls. Why is this? Do they not get ADHD as much as boys?
Turns out they do, it can just look very, very different than the stereotypical, hyperactive, disruptive child archetype.
Subtle hyperactivity: Did you chew your jumpers? (sweaters for those of you who aren't Aussie). Your hair? Your nails? Pick at your cuticles? Twirling bits of material hanging off your clothing constantly? You might not have been bouncing off the walls or jumping out of your chair, but could you be still?
Noisy mind: Did you ever find yourself trying to meditate before you knew what meditation was? When I was young I heard someone say that you could empty your mind of thoughts by visualising open windows in your head, breezy curtains allowing thoughts to just fly through. I used this tactic instinctively as a little kid to get to sleep when my busy mind was racing with foggy, grainy, noisy, disparate content, not realising that was unusual. I cherish this vague piece of advice my childhood mind received, it was something that made meditation stand out to me as an adult and it's still one of the most effective methods I use to turn the volume down in my head.
Difficulty making friends, sort of: You often did find someone to gel with, a kooky best friend who seemed to be on your level. You probably drifted away from these friendships too, the attachment seemingly dissolving into thin air until another one came along. The noisy, popular kids weren't into you, and you couldn't figure out why. Childhood is a confusing time, even more so when your mind is incessantly chattering away at you. Teenage years were maybe a bit easier socially, you learned how to be a funny, entertaining drop-in to multiple friendship groups but you still didn't feel like you fit anywhere.
Quiet achiever? Quiet daydreamer?: Young girls often present with inattentive type ADHD, and it's often missed because of this. Daydreaming but not being disruptive? Smart kid? They might fly under the radar completely, left well alone because someone thought they were just shy, or even academically gifted and not in need of help. If they're not being disruptive, it's likely the teacher or parent is focused on someone else. You might be twice exceptional, that is, neurodivergent and academically gifted. Was there something advanced about your performance that allowed you to skate by? Something you were good enough at that meant caregivers ignored the things you were bad at? Can't have it all, I suppose.
Self-esteem issues: You know that something is wrong, but you're not sure what. You know you're different, and you assume it's just that you're unlikeable for some reason that you don't understand. It can look like anxiety, depression, shyness, and withdrawal, and it can often go unnoticed. Bend, twist, shrink, they won't find out you're an alien if you mask it hard enough. The shame a young kid can feel when they're out of place is enormous, and you might not be able to see it at all. Or maybe you were that kid, and you've taken that shame into your adult years and now it's eating away at you.
Procrastination: You couldn't ever find the motivation to start something ahead of time. School work, homework, chores, if it wasn't interesting to you, you didn't want to know. But, there are consequences for not finishing tasks, so you did eventually get to them but not until you'd raised enough anxiety in your nervous system (and adrenaline in your stress systems) to push you through it.
Perfectionism: Counterintuitively, girls might show signs of extreme perfectionism. Trying to get control over your monkey mind? It might look like anxious overachievement and perfectionism. The question is, at what cost? What does that look like after it's been your main coping strategy for 30 years? Let me tell you a secret: it's not pretty..
Hyper-focus: So you had trouble engaging in things that didn't interest you, but you could find intense periods of focus for topics you loved. This factor makes it very difficult to assess or suspect ADHD, you probably were praised for the output of hyper-focus periods and you use these periods to produce just enough to get by unnoticed.
Lazy, crazy, stupid, idiot: Do any of these sound familiar? Bonus points if you were also told you were very clever. This dichotomy is the cornerstone of the overachieving, anxious, perfectionistic, and controlling traits you might take into adulthood as coping strategies.
Emotionally labile: Extreme emotional sensitivity, getting upset easily, crying, conflict, frustration. Were your intentions misunderstood? You probably felt like you could read the emotions of everyone around you, and you were probably also aware that you were a cause of conflict and frustration without understanding why. In adulthood, this can manifest as people-pleasing. Feel like you're treading on eggshells around absolutely everyone? Constantly worrying about the perceptions of others? Emotionally dysregulated?
Why is this list important?
Girls who don't get diagnosed, don't get the support they need to thrive. They will often mask their symptoms and hide behind perfectionism and anxiety. They might get by at school or work but at what cost to their emotional well-being? Often girls make it into adulthood with undiagnosed ADHD severely affecting their quality of life, not ever realising things could be different. That's why it's important to seek professional help if you're struggling.
ADHD can look like depression, it can look like anxiety or it could look like you just don't give a shit. If that's the external perception, and you don't understand where/when/how/why that's happening for you, reach out to a health professional to talk about your problems. You deserve support, and if you didn't get the right support as a child, it's up to you to provide that for yourself as an adult. It doesn't feel fair sometimes, and it can feel like you missed out on a lot, but the sooner you seek help, the sooner the fog lifts, the shadows take their proper form and the world becomes a more understandable place.