Common Symptoms of ADHD in Girls


When your daughter’s teacher recommends testing for ADHD, it can be a big shock if you don’t know much about this neurotype. That’s a common experience for a lot of parents. Research on what ADHD looks like and the population of neurodiverse people who have it has progressed a lot in just the last 10 years. 

Before getting an ADHD diagnosis, many students and their caregivers find themselves in frustrating behavioral patterns that can seem impossible to break, especially when a child is the first in their family to get a diagnosis. Learning more about ADHD might illuminate some things about your daughter’s behavior and talents — and possibly your own. 

We encourage you to keep learning so you can find support for your child and your family that feels like a good fit. This article provides some background information about ADHD in girls and how to recognize when it’s time to get some help.


What does ADHD look like in girls?

Having ADHD basically means a person's brain works differently than most. Every person with ADHD has different traits and experiences, though there are a few specific subtypes that have distinctive patterns — particularly the brain's reward system. People with ADHD have differences in their ability to focus, and most have a constant need for stimulation or activity. They experience challenges with Executive Functioning that most "neurotypical" people don't. Executive Functioning skills help us plan, initiate and achieve goals in different areas of our lives. The good news is that these skills and behaviors can be built up, much like muscles in other parts of the body. However, some children may still need medication to manage things like concentration, focus and energy level.

ADHD is often referred to as a neurodevelopmental disorder. There’s a lot of new research that shows most children with ADHD actually have outstanding talents that have been historically overlooked or misunderstood. So there’s a good case for updating the ways we think, talk about and manage ADHD. That’s part of the reason why the concept of neurodiversity has become more widely discussed and accepted. 

The behaviors and symptoms of girls with ADHD can be harder to spot for several reasons. First, girls with ADHD can be incredibly smart, and they sometimes learn to suppress unwanted behaviors very early on or develop coping mechanisms like double-checking things or perfectionism. At the same time, adults are more likely to interpret girls’ ADHD symptoms as personality traits, like being a “chatterbox” or a “drama queen.” Their hyperactivity behaviors can look very different and be potentially less disruptive than boys’. For instance, instead of blurting out answers or falling out of their chair, a girl might doodle in her notebook or talk quietly to the person next to her during work time. And last, girls are more likely to develop inattentive-type ADHD than boys, which we’ll discuss in the next section.

Some symptoms you might notice in girls with undiagnosed or untreated ADHD can include:

  • Daydreaming
  • Being easily distracted
  • Talking or doodling in class
  • Perfectionism
  • Difficulty managing emotions
  • Being able to read for hours on end but making careless mistakes on homework
  • Poor grades and frustration over disliked subjects
  • Difficulty maintaining eye contact when being spoken to
  • Being forgetful about daily tasks and routines, like turning in homework
  • Leaving projects or assignments unfinished
  • Losing personal belongings
  • Being disorganized, having a hard time keeping their room tidy
  • Difficulty making friends or maintaining friendships


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What’s inattentive-type ADHD?

This subtype of ADHD is characterized by limited attention span, disorganization, forgetfulness and seeming “lost in their own thoughts.” They may seem to have trouble listening or following directions. There’s often little to no hyperactivity, so these symptoms are more internal and less conspicuous. Children with inattentive-type ADHD are often misunderstood and written off as lazy, messy, flaky or uncaring.

Inattentive-type ADHD is difficult to diagnose in young children, but the Executive Functioning skill deficits still have negative effects. When behavioral problems go unnoticed by parents and teachers, these children can develop mood disorders. They may start to internalize criticism and believe they really are lazy or rude. By the time they reach middle school, they may suffer from anxiety, depression or a combination of both.


ADHD in girls vs. boys

We have pervasive stereotypes about what ADHD looks like because of many of the same reasons listed in the previous section. Boys with problematic behaviors were among the first to be studied, and researchers originally thought that girls either couldn’t or were less likely to develop ADHD. Now we know that boys have only a slightly higher prevalence of ADHD than girls. 

Girls with ADHD are affected by their neurodivergence every bit as much as boys, and sometimes more. They experience problems not only with school and homework, but with emotional regulation, stress management, self-esteem and psychiatric difficulties. Some studies have shown that females of different ages were more impaired than males in most relevant areas like social functioning, perception of time, stress management and mood disorders. Males were more impaired in working memory and educational functioning.


The bigger picture

The experiences children have and the messages they receive about themselves early in life have significant effects on them in adulthood. It’s true that people with ADHD have differences in their brains, particularly their mechanisms for focus, concentration and feeling rewarded. These chemical differences also translate to Executive Function skills that can be built up, much like muscles in other parts of the body. These are skills that help us plan, initiate and achieve goals in different areas of our lives.

When girls have difficulty with certain kinds of tasks and functions, they develop a story in their minds to explain why that’s happening. Comparing themselves to their peers can cause them a lot of stress. The negative messages they receive nearly every day can turn into deep-seated negative beliefs about themselves. They might start to avoid situations where they feel less capable or limit themselves to situations that seem familiar. If ADHD goes undiagnosed and untreated, girls can fall into the same cycles of trauma and abuse that have persisted over generations. 

ADHD does have a strong genetic component. When parents start to notice their children struggling or showing problematic behaviors, many are reminded of their own difficult childhood experiences. This can make it hard to have discussions about evaluating or treating your child for conditions like ADHD. But learning about a child’s ADHD can be the catalyst for positive generational change. Parents can learn ways to provide the structure and consistency they didn’t have, and the whole family can help each other grow. 


Raising girls with ADHD

There’s much more to ADHD than Executive Function skill deficits: Girls with ADHD can have very high IQs and high energy levels. They often excel in creativity, empathy, tenacity, observation and laser focus. Understanding their ADHD and developing the skills to manage it are critical for girls to reach the full potential of their “ADHD superpowers” while maintaining a healthy sense of self-worth. As a parent, there are a few different things you can do to support your child with ADHD.

First, help your daughter understand what ADHD is in the context of her experiences. Normalize her struggles by giving gentle reminders and keeping yourself from using harsh punishments or comparing her to siblings or other children. It’s also important to celebrate her successes. Instructional approaches will work much better than discipline when ADHD is the underlying cause of a perceived “misbehavior.” 

Second, get a good understanding of Executive Functioning and make sure your daughter is learning those skills. You don’t have to do all of this by yourself — it may take some time to shore up your own skills in these areas. We offer Executive Function coaching for kids, and our partner company WorkSmart Coaching specializes in helping adults with ADHD. Your biggest responsibility, then, will be spotting areas where your daughter is struggling most and encourage her by working on those skills together. Our coaches have a toolbox with over 375 evidence-based tools, strategies and resources they can recommend to make your life and your child’s life easier.

Finally, open up a channel of communication with your daughter about the ways she might be different from others. Help her recognize her own strengths and weaknesses, and remind her that you’re there to support her. She’ll need help learning to socialize and set boundaries with siblings and friends at school who might make judgments or call her names like “bossy” or “lazy.” Spend quality time with your daughter individually to establish a trusting relationship that will keep you connected when things get difficult. 


Help your daughter learn to thrive with ADHD coaching

There’s a lot more to know about raising a child with ADHD that we don’t have room for in this article. Our blog and our podcast are great resources where you can continue learning. 

Our evidence-based coaching methodology can help children with ADHD manage time, initiate tasks, prioritize and achieve. In a word, it works. Your daughter will learn a lot about herself and develop skills that extend far beyond the classroom. She’ll be matched with a coach and develop a positive relationship with them — if you’re not delighted with your child’s coach, we’ll re-match you for free. 

Ready to start your family’s journey with ADHD coaching? Contact our team today for more information on ADHD support.

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