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ADHD is one of the most commonly diagnosed childhood disorders, yet for many women it isn’t until they reach their twenties or thirties that they finally receive a diagnosis.

By: Harriet Grayson

For many young girls, the terms “daydreamer” or “window-gazer” are commonplace. They may have trouble paying attention in class or focusing on a task, but it is just because they have over active imaginations. No one would stop to think that this daydreaming could in fact be a symptom of ADHD, that while everything might seem normal up close everything is “chaos”.

ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, is one of the most common neurodevelopment disorders that arises in childhood and lasts well into adulthood. In Australia alone, it is estimated that one in 20 children suffer from ADHD. While ADHD is often perceived as a child who simply can’t sit still, there are in fact two very different types of ADHD. 

One is the hyperactive-impulsive form, the most commonly recognised form of ADHD. Children with hyperactive-impulsive ADHD typically squirm or fidget regularly, are overly talkative, have trouble taking turns with others and find it difficult to focus on one task at a time. 

The less common form is the inattentive form of ADHD. Children with this form often daydream a lot, regularly forget or lose things, and make careless mistakes more often than most children do. 

Little girl daydreaming

According to child and adult psychotherapist, Fran Walfish, boys tend to exhibit the hyperactive form of ADHD while the inattentive form is more common in girls. Because its symptoms are not as easily observable, inattentive ADHD is often hugely undiagnosed in children, especially amongst girls and young women. Boys are over three times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with ADHD, and even in adulthood they are still twice as likely to be diagnosed.

There are a number of reasons for this, one of the main ones being ADHD in women remains significantly under-researched to this day. Women weren’t included in findings from studies on ADHD until the late nineties, and weren’t given their own long-term study until 2002. 

Another crucial reason, and one that has no doubt contributed to the lack of research into ADHD in women, is the way gender norms in society to this day have created a sense that women are inherently sensitive, emotional and passive, while men are more serious and active. When girls and young women exhibit symptoms characteristic of inattentive ADHD, they are dismissed for being silly daydreamers. If they act impulsively, which in boys would be identified as a symptom of hyperactive-impulsive ADHD, it is simply because they are a bit of a tomboy. 

Girls and young women are also more likely to cover up their ADHD symptoms by adopting the behaviour of those around them. Maddi Derrick, a clinical psychologist who directs an ADHD specialty clinic in Hobart and who herself lived with undiagnosed ADHD for much of her life, says that ADHD can also be under-diagnosed in girls and young women because they mature socially and emotionally more quickly than boys. 

According to Derrick, this means that they are “probably a bit more aware and focused on how others are viewing them” than boys with ADHD. Girls and young women with ADHD often try very hard to concentrate to hide the signs of their ADHD, so that in school teachers see someone who is just talkative or “daydreamy” rather than someone struggling with ADHD. 

Derrick describes experiencing a sense of “internal hyperactivity” throughout her school years, getting easily flustered or blowing up as her ADHD made it difficult to control her emotions. Yet she says it took her many years to realise not everyone felt the way she felt, and that not everyone’s mind is all “very, very busy, quite noisy, sometimes irritatingly so”.

While ADHD tends to be diagnosed early in boys, it is often overlooked in girls and young women until much later in life. Once women with ADHD reach their early to mid twenties, or their university years, their lack of self-regulation and self-management becomes more noticeable. Anthony Rostain, professor of psychiatry and paediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, says that in University, women with ADHD have more of a risk of being susceptible to negative pressure from sororities or getting involved in things like recreational drugs because they have trouble managing impulse control. 

For many women, it isn’t until their thirties or forties that they are finally diagnosed. Noelle Faulkner, a journalist for the Guardian, has lived with ADHD for most of her life. As a child, she recalls being repeatedly told to “stop daydreaming”, “slow down” and “act like a lady”, while she herself felt “overwhelmed by the world” to the point where she disassociated from it to cope. 

After six visits to her GP in the space of two years, each one for the same unexplained exhaustion, she saw a psychologist who responded to her complaints by asking her if she was simply aiming too high. Her exhaustion was put down to the pressure for perfection faced by all women in her industry. It took experiencing numerous severe burnouts from feeling chronically overwhelmed and countless visits to various GPs and psychologists to finally get a diagnosis in her thirties.

Her experiences are similar to those of many women struggling to live with an illness they do not know they have, battling symptoms they cannot explain or seem to overcome. This struggle is multiplied for women with ADHD who are also mothers, juggling the never-ending demands of childcare as well as those of their career while their disorder wrecks havoc on their mental health. The medications many use to treat ADHD may get them through the day at the office, but tend to wear off by the time they get home, meaning that they have to manage the various demands of organising the house and taking care of their children with their ADHD at its full force. 

Mother at computer with children

For any woman with ADHD, managing their disorder so they aren’t completely overwhelmed can seem utterly impossible. It can be challenging, but there are a number of simple yet crucial steps women can take to make life not merely bearable but enjoyable. Medication, psychotherapy and mental health counselling are a few of the most common treatment options both for coping with symptoms of ADHD and for offering support for those with the disorder and their loved ones. 

Terry Matlen, psychotherapist and author on ADHD in women, offers some easy survival tips that women, especially mothers, with ADHD can employ to improve their lives. The first, and possibly the most important, is that women accept that they have ADHD. Matlen says it is hard for women to acknowledge that they aren’t perfect, and particularly that they need help, but that it is essential women just “accept (their) ADHD and go with it”. The second is to ask help from their family members in whatever way they need it. 

Matlen states, delegating tasks around the house not only gives mothers with ADHD the help they need but also helps teach their children responsibility. She also recommends that mothers explain their symptoms to their family, keep a calendar with colour coded schedules for each family member, and establish quiet zones free of technology to minimise distractions during quality family time. 

Be aware of these three health symptoms you should never ignore…

Most of us follow the rule that if we eat well, exercise regularly, avoid smoking, manage our stress levels and only indulge in moderation, we should be able to maintain generally good health and avoid major illnesses. However, knowing when you should and shouldn’t ignore a health symptom is also key to maintaining good health well into the future.

While none of us want to rush to the doctors’ office every time we feel a slight niggle or pain, there are a few health symptoms that often go ignored that should warrant a little more investigation.

Suspicious moles

In Australia, getting outdoors and soaking up the sun is simply part of our culture. Starting from childhood most of us can recall spending long days at the beach, playing outdoor sports or simply being outside enjoying nature, also continually exposing ourselves to potentially harmful UV radiation. As a result, almost all of us have at least some moles on our body.

Caused by an overproduction in melanin, while most moles are completely harmless, some may not be. Usually occurring in parts of the body that have been overexposed to the sun, melanoma is the fourth most common cancer in Australia, with one in 13 men and one in 22 women being diagnosed with the cancer which can be deadly if left unnoticed and untreated.

If you have a suspicious mole that you think could be cancerous, the warning signs to look for usually include a change in size, colour or shape, or if they begin to ooze, bleed or weep. If you notice any of these symptoms, you should see a doctor immediately.

If caught early, most people can have the mole removed and continue to live a long and healthy life, making having a regular mole check very important. If you do need to have a mole removed, the procedure is usually relatively straightforward, with places like this mole removal clinic in Melbourne able to remove the mole very quickly with almost no recovery time.

Major toothache

Have you’ve had a toothache for a while but haven’t got around to getting to the dentist to have it checked out? Don’t delay any longer. While there can be a range of causes of a major toothache, if the pain is being caused by gum disease or tooth decay, the longer you leave it untreated, the worse your condition will get.

When the bacteria, acid and food debris in our mouths combine, it forms plaque which can then lead to a range of problems. Dentists can usually find cavities during a regular check-up and treat them relatively easily by removing the decayed portion of the tooth with a drill, before repairing the hole with an amalgam, resin, alloy or porcelain filling.

However, if a cavity is left untreated for too long, it could reach the root or pulp of the tooth (which may have already happened if you’re experiencing pain) and require more major root canal treatment to also remove the nerve, blood vessels and tissue. You may also need a crown to replace the missing portion of the tooth.

Not only is a root canal procedure likely to cause a lot more pain and require a longer recovery period than a simple filling but it’s also likely to cost a lot more, so it’s well worth making an appointment with your dentist sooner rather than later.

Unexplained weight loss

If you’ve recently increased the amount of exercise you do or started paying more attention to what you’re eating, weight loss can be a sign that you’re making some great progress. However, if you haven’t made any major changes to your diet or exercise regime lately but have noticed you’ve lost a significant amount of weight, it could be a sign that something in your body’s not functioning as it should.

Unexplained weight loss could occur because of things like a thyroid issue, gut disease, rheumatoid arthritis or depression, or in some cases could be a sign of diabetes or even cancer. While you shouldn’t jump to any conclusions, it’s important that you see a doctor to try to identify what could be behind your weight loss so you can address any underlying health issues you may not have been aware of.