Why ADHD in Women Looks Different Than in Men

It is erroneous to think that a disorder such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) looks the same in everyone. While symptoms fit within a certain cluster or grouping, those symptom patterns may look very different between different people.

For women with ADHD or ADD, symptoms of this disorder often look very different than men who have the same disorder.

Adult ADHD is becoming more commonly diagnosed as more adults recognize that the symptoms they had attributed to “just the way they are” or their “scattered brain” are actually a serious problem. For women, this often doesn’t occur until later in young adulthood, when they’ve left the relative structure of childhood behind. The freedoms that college or young adult life bring also bring something unanticipated — disorganization.

Women tend to internalize problems more than men do, so when faced with sudden challenges with prioritizing, coordinating, or organizing, many women with attention deficit disorder will first believe it is a character flaw. That there’s something wrong with them or their personality. They don’t see it is as a possible sign of a treatable disorder.

It’s disturbing to see this played out in real life; how girls with ADHD can grow up to be women who are plagued by self-doubt about their abilities. Many seem to feel it is a sign that they’re not good enough, that they’ve done something wrong and deserve these bad feelings. Teenage girls with ADHD concerned with their inability to meet the demands placed on them in academic settings also seem to struggle with self-injury and suicidal thoughts more than those without ADHD (Hinshaw et al., 2012).

Many women with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder also suffer from anxiety or depression, and may have struggled with these concerns for years. They don’t always see the connection between the two — that the underlying cause of their depression or anxiety is undiagnosed ADHD.

Most adults with ADHD also struggle with another psychiatric disorder. So found one study in the journal Pediatrics which examined 232 adults who were diagnosed with ADHD as a child (Barbaresi et al., 2013). By the time they reached age 27, nearly 57 percent of them had another psychiatric disorder — nearly twice the number of those without childhood ADHD. For reasons yet unknown, women seem to focus more of their attention and treatment efforts on these other disorders than their attention deficit symptoms.

It would be beneficial to women to recognize the signs of attention deficit disorder (take our free adult ADHD quiz to find out) and not be ashamed if they have some of them. In fact, if a woman is also suffering from depression or anxiety, it may be good news. Her ADHD symptoms may be directly related to her depressive or anxious feelings and can be treated.

If individuals you know suffer from some of the common symptoms of ADD, please encourage them to have it checked out. It may be extremely helpful to them to talk to a mental health professional and find out that their disorganization, difficulty with prioritizing and coordinating activities is actually not “just the way they are,” but instead are signs of a treatable condition — adult ADHD.

 

For further information

Ellen Littman, Ph.D.: The Secret Lives of Girls with ADHD (PDF)

References

Barbaresi, et al. (2013). Mortality, ADHD, and Psychosocial Adversity in Adults With Childhood ADHD: A Prospective Study. Pediatrics, 131.

Hinshaw, et al. (2012). Prospective Follow-Up of Girls With Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder Into Early Adulthood: Continuing Impairment Includes Elevated Risk for Suicide Attempts and Self-Injury. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 80.