My brother was diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in primary school. A neurological condition caused by an underproduction of attention-regulating chemicals in the brain, ADHD comes in three types: Inattentive, hyperactive/impulsive and combination. He was hyperactive, literally crawling up walls as he scaled the load beam between our dining room and kitchen. His energy was undeniable.
While my parents worked to pry him down from anything climbable, they had to pry me out of my books. I’d read for hours, completely unaware of my surroundings. When I wasn’t reading, I wandered off. Once when I was getting on the bus, the wind blew a piece of paper out of my hand. I followed it for 1.6km before looking up and realising I had no idea where I was.
When I was a child there weren't many options for entertainment after school or on weekends. I could walk to a friend's house. I could watch TV on our 13 fuzzy channels. Or I could read. And so I read, and read, and read - hours and even whole days would pass with no interruptions. I didn't have any choice but to concentrate.
My mother — not the doctors, not my school — was the one who noticed there was something different about me, too. She was reading Dr James Dobson’s Parenting the Strong-Willed Child, looking for ways to help my brother. But with each chapter, she thought, “This sounds less like him and more like her.”
By the end of the book, she knew: I also had Attention Deficit. I didn’t receive an official diagnosis — inattentive ADHD — until Year 10.
This, certified ADHD coach Elaine Taylor-Klaus says, is common. “ADHD is only diagnosed when it causes a problem with critical areas of life or learning.” While I would argue leaving school without telling anyone was an issue, it isn’t the kind that typically results in diagnosis. “‘Spacing out’ or scatterbrained girls do not interrupt classrooms or become discipline problems,” she adds, “so they may not be identified as readily.”
The first important step in helping kids with ADHD is figuring out that they have it. But according to Taylor-Klaus, “the challenge for girls is getting the diagnosis in the first place.” Here’s what to do if you think your daughter may have the disorder:
Make sure she’s diagnosed with the correct ADHD type
Despite my and my brother’s diagnoses, boys aren’t always hyperactive and girls aren’t always inattentive. According to Taylor-Klaus — who parents two daughters with Attention Deficit and has it herself — female hyperactivity often gets suppressed or manifests differently.
“Girls are expected to be ‘pleasers’ and to be socially-focused,” she explains, so they learn coping methods sooner than boys — who are allowed to grandstand, display aggression or be physical much longer.
Watch out for gender bias
If you’re parenting a boy and a girl with ADHD, it’s easy to fall into stereotypes on how to best help: Teach him to sit still and her to focus. But Taylor-Klaus says it isn’t that simple.
“Effective parenting strategies for ADHD must really be personalised to the individual, regardless of gender,” she explains. According to her, the idea that certain techniques work better for boys than girls comes from gender bias, not neurological science. “It’s about the child’s particular brain-wiring, not the gender.”
This gender bias also means boys and girls face different social difficulties as a result of ADHD. Taylor-Klaus says an inattentive type boy who’d rather draw than play “could encounter trouble socially”. He’s expected to be active — not daydreamy.
Comparatively, “younger girls with hyperactivity may prefer to play with boys than with girls on a playground,” which Taylor-Klaus adds “is not always accepted. By the time girls start standing around and talking during recess, the girls with ADHD are still needing to move — and they have a hard time getting an ‘appropriate’ way to do that.”
Talk about sex early
Hyperactive/impulsive type girls may become sexual sooner than their peers. Taylor-Klaus says, “It may not look like hyperactivity to the outside world, but they are still very much dealing with a body that is stimulation-seeking.”
So whereas pre-teen and teenage boys who are hypersexual are learning to control their hormones, your daughter’s behaviour may stem from her neurotransmitters instead. For parents facing this problem, Taylor-Klaus suggests reading research from Dr Stephen Hinshaw, a psychiatrist publishing on both ADHD and the female brain.