ADHD masking describes how a person acts when they’re trying to cope with symptoms. Some strategies can be helpful and others harmful.

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Some people try masking attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to avoid the social stigma that its symptoms can cause. They might not want people to know about their condition.

Other people mask ADHD that is undiagnosed. They may not be aware of its presence and might mask their symptoms to cope.

ADHD masking is also called camouflaging or impression management. It involves hiding symptoms or overcompensating for them. When you mask ADHD, you try to act like you do not have the condition.

Masking is not the same thing as managing ADHD.

When you manage ADHD, you receive treatment like medication or therapy. Managing ADHD with the help of a therapist can also teach you new skills and organizational methods tailored to you.

Do females use masking behaviors more?

The ADHD diagnosis rate is higher in males than in females. Masking might be one of the reasons for this difference.

Research from 2019 suggests that in school settings, females camouflage ADHD symptoms more, making signs easier to miss. Hidden ADHD symptoms in females often lead to a referral bias in favor of males, which means males are diagnosed more often.

This is also the case when other conditions exist alongside ADHD because of the kinds of symptoms they produce.

Males are more likely to show signs of oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) or conduct disorder, which have outward behaviors, like rule-breaking and aggression. While these are not signs of ADHD, they do lead to assessments where ADHD can be identified.

Females with ADHD tend to have more internalizing disorders alongside their ADHD that are not as disruptive in the classroom, like anxiety. When combined with symptom masking, this could mean that females are not as likely to be diagnosed with ADHD as males.

It’s important to note that the binary gender language used here reflects the language used in this research. More inclusive studies are needed on masking behaviors across the gender spectrum.

What is ADHD mirroring?

In psychology, mirroring is when a person observes and copies another person’s behavior. Mirroring is a way to gain social acceptance and connect with other people. It’s also how young children learn.

Mirroring can be a type of ADHD masking since it suppresses ADHD behaviors and replaces them with more socially acceptable alternatives.

Some clinicians refer to mirroring as a type of impression management. According to sociologist Erving Goffman, humans are actors playing roles to improve social interaction. Impression management is a type of performance that people living with ADHD might use to avoid being ostracized.

As children, people living with ADHD learn which behaviors separate them from others. They may hear repeated pleas like “pay attention” and “stay in your seat” from parents and teachers.

Since masking is an effort to improve social experience, the symptoms that people may try to mask are the ones they think might bother the people around them.

These include:

If you’re masking ADHD, other people might not be able to tell. But there may be signs that you can spot:

  • purposefully saying less so you will not talk too much or interrupt people
  • writing everything down so you can remember it later
  • suppressing strong emotions
  • having difficulty focusing because you’re trying hard to hide excess energy
  • feeling unable to relax before an upcoming appointment because you might lose track of time
  • feeling the urge to organize a task or project rather than work on it
  • experiencing irritability from having to focus on a low-interest activity
  • maintaining perfectionist standards to hide your self-perceived flaws
  • mimicking other people in social situations so you’ll fit in

On the surface, masking might seem like effective ADHD symptom management. There are plausible downsides to masking ADHD, though.

  • ADHD that is undiagnosed can prevent people from receiving support that studies have shown to be beneficial.
  • The stress of masking untreated or undiagnosed ADHD might contribute to anxiety and depression, similar to the way 2021 research demonstrates this connection in autistic people.
  • People might not believe you need some help if you’re too good at masking.
  • Masking might delay or prevent ADHD diagnosis. Research from 2015 links untreated ADHD to an increased chance of developing substance use disorder.
  • Masking might interfere with your ability to pay attention to your surroundings or follow conversations.
  • Research from 2021 suggests that people who mask might have trouble connecting with their own identity.

Masking can be exhausting and leave you drained of energy. But there are ways to make things easier.

Consider diagnosis and treatment

You might be masking undiagnosed ADHD. Maybe you have a diagnosis but have not followed up with your doctor. Your treatment might also not be working as well as it should.

In these cases, it might be time to contact a doctor to review your treatment options. There are medications, therapy choices, and lifestyle strategies that can help reduce the effect that ADHD symptoms have on your life.

Celebrate ADHD strengths

It’s easy to get caught up in masking and lose sight of the positive characteristics of ADHD. Some of these include:

  • abundant energy
  • spontaneity
  • excitement and enthusiasm
  • curiosity
  • creativity
  • quick thinking
  • ability to hyperfocus

In fact, research from 2017 supports the connection between creativity and ADHD. You may take these traits for granted and forget that they’re highly valued in many situations.

Separate mindful and unhealthy masking behaviors

Some masking efforts are skills you’ve learned to manage your symptoms. For example, tools like timers and lists can help avoid lateness or procrastination, which are common ADHD symptoms

Other forms of masking can be harmful, like:

  • using so much energy to seem “fine” that you do not have enough left to function or enjoy life
  • hiding your feelings and denying yourself emotional support from friends and family
  • behaving as if you do not have ADHD and missing out on a diagnosis and treatment

It’s fine and even recommended to keep helpful tools like lists and timers. But it’s important to identify and change the types of ADHD masking that may be causing you stress or anxiety.

Helpful masking effectsHarmful masking effects
punctuality by using tools like timersexcessive fatigue
social acceptancebypassed support opportunities
less procrastination by adopting organizational strategiesbarriers to diagnosis and treatment
fewer interpersonal mishapsdisconnect from your true identity

Recognize that stigma comes from myths

If you catch yourself masking, it’s helpful to remember that the ADHD symptoms you’re trying to hide are not a poor reflection of you. Instead, they’re simply part of a diagnosis that’s often misunderstood.

Learn emotional regulation

Therapy for ADHD is a popular option to help in areas like social skills and emotional regulation. Therapy can help you learn to manage your feelings rather than suppress and mask them.

ADHD masking involves going to great efforts to hide your symptoms. Some people mask their ADHD to avoid the stigma that comes with the diagnosis. Others mask symptoms that they’re not aware are part of ADHD.

Some masking strategies, like organizational tools, can be helpful. Other strategies, like suppressing emotion, can be harmful.

One of the best ways to reduce the effect of unhelpful masking behaviors is to receive a diagnosis and treatment for ADHD. Treatment could help to reduce symptoms, which might make masking seem less necessary.

It’s helpful to identify and change the masking behaviors that may be making your life more difficult.

It can be comforting and educational to connect with other people who also live with ADHD. Consider visiting Psych Central’s ADHD Resources page to learn ways to communicate with others who share your experience.