Why is ADHD so often misdiagnosed in women?

Marianne, now 44, says she was always told as a child that she was “just a talkative kid,” often getting in trouble with her teachers for being chatty and silly.

“I never really thought about it, expect I could guarantee it would show up on my report card that I needed to stop talking so much and that I needed to pay attention more, all that stuff,” she says. “I was never a bad kid. I was just that kid who was here, there, and everywhere, and seemed like I really annoyed the heck out of my teachers.”

In adulthood, Marianne would get diagnosed first with anxiety, then depression… and then ADHD.

Turns out this isn’t exactly uncommon – the characteristics of ADHD are often mistaken as character traits for women, rather than symptoms, which results in a misdiagnosis. In some cases, the woman doesn’t seek treatment, believing that this is just how she is.

The signs of ADHD in women can appear in any and every aspect of life: at work, at school, in relationships.

At work, being an office and having to follow rules could be challenged, or the noise and banter may be distracting. A woman with ADHD may feel ill equipped to concentrate when there’s so much going on, because she doesn’t feel capable of staying in the zone when there are so many people to talk to and so much to do.  

At school, it may be hard to focus on one topic or subject; alternatively, a woman with ADHD may become hyperfocused on one single interest. For this reason, sometimes ADHD in girls is overlooked, when it seems that too much attention is the issue, not the inability to pay attention.

In relationships – romantic and platonic – a woman with ADHD may struggle because she can’t remember important dates or times, like birthdays, anniversaries, or dinner reservations. This can make her seem inattentive or forgetful or insensitive, when it’s really just a symptom of an overall disorder.

Daily life can feel frustrating and overwhelming for a woman with ADHD. She may feel indecisive – over grocery store items, places to eat out, or what color to paint the living room. The house might be chaotic and disorganized (although she may know exactly where she’s put everything). She might live in clutter, hoarding trinkets or clothes or books or other items of interest. She might overspend because she’s overcompensating for other things, a way to feel better in the moment. She may not know how to relax, how to partake in self-care, and may have poor self-esteem.

An added layer to misdiagnosis is the possibility of other, co-occurring conditions, like anxiety disorders, eating disorders, mood disorders, or even substance abuse.

All this said, treatment is available – and generally quite effective.

Depending on the severity of the symptoms, a woman diagnosed with ADHD may be prescribed medication, therapy, or a combination of both. Lifestyle changes may be suggested.

Having ADHD isn’t a jail sentence, and as a matter of fact, many women with ADHD live wonderful, comfortable, empowered lives. While some of the symptoms may seem overwhelming or debilitating, knowing how to manage them may actually make the woman with ADHD love herself more. Instead of being labeled as hyperactive, she can consider herself energetic and vibrant; instead of considering herself unfocused, she can think about how many strengths and interests she has to share with the world.

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