Knowledge of ADHD in women at this time is extremely limited as few studies have been conducted on this population. Women have only recently begun to be diagnosed and treated for ADHD, and today, most of what we know about this population is based on the clinical experience of mental health professionals who have specialized in treating women.
Impact of ADHD in women
ADHD in young girls is often overlooked, the reasons for which remain unclear, and many females are not diagnosed until they are adults. Frequently, a woman comes to recognize her own ADHD after one of her children has received a diagnosis. As she learns more about ADHD, she begins to see many similar patterns in herself.
Some women seek treatment for ADHD because their lives are out of control―their finances may be in chaos; their paperwork and record-keeping are often poorly managed; they may struggle unsuccessfully to keep up with the demands of their jobs; and they may feel even less able to keep up with the daily tasks of meals, laundry and life management. Other women are more successful in hiding their ADHD, struggling valiantly to keep up with increasingly difficult demands by working into the night and spending their free time trying to "get organized." But whether a woman's life is clearly in chaos or whether she is able to hide her struggles, she often describes herself as feeling overwhelmed and exhausted.
While research of ADHD in women continues to lag behind that in adult males, many clinicians are finding significant concerns and co-existing conditions in women with ADHD. Compulsive overeating, alcohol abuse and chronic sleep deprivation may be present in women with ADHD.
Women with ADHD often experience dysphoria (unpleasant mood), major depression and anxiety disorders, with rates of depressive and anxiety disorders similar to those in men with ADHD. However, women with ADHD appear to experience more psychological distress and have lower self-image than men with ADHD.
Compared to women without ADHD, women diagnosed with ADHD in adulthood are more likely to have depressive symptoms, are more stressed and anxious, have more external locus of control (tendency to attribute success and difficulties to external factors such as chance), have lower self-esteem and are engaged more in coping strategies that are emotion-oriented (use self-protective measures to reduce stress) than task-oriented (take action to solve problems).
Studies show that ADHD in a family member causes stress for the entire family. However, stress levels may be higher for women than men because they bear more responsibility for home and children. In addition, recent research suggests that husbands of women with ADHD are less tolerant of their spouse's ADHD patterns than wives of men with ADHD. Chronic stress takes its toll on women with ADHD, affecting them both physically and psychologically. Women who suffer chronic stress like that associated with ADHD are more at risk for diseases related to chronic stress such as fibromyalgia.
Thus, it is becoming increasingly clear that the lack of appropriate identification and treatment of ADHD in women is a significant public health concern.
The challenge of receiving appropriate treatment
ADHD is a condition that affects multiple aspects of mood, cognitive abilities, behaviors, and daily life. Effective treatment for ADHD in adult women may involve a multimodal approach that includes medication, psychotherapy, stress management, as well as ADHD coaching and/or professional organizing.
Even those women fortunate enough to receive an accurate ADHD diagnosis often face the subsequent challenge of finding a professional who can provide appropriate treatment. There are very few clinicians experienced in treating adult ADHD and even fewer who are familiar with the unique issues faced by women with ADHD. As a result, most clinicians use standard psychotherapeutic approaches. Although these approaches can be helpful in providing insight into emotional and interpersonal issues, they do not help a woman with ADHD learn to better manage her ADHD on a daily basis or learn strategies to lead a more productive and satisfying life.
ADHD-focused therapies are being developed to address a broad range of issues including self-esteem, interpersonal and family issues, daily health habits, daily stress level, and life management skills. Such interventions are often referred to as "neurocognitive psychotherapy," which combines cognitive behavior therapy with cognitive rehabilitation techniques. Cognitive behavior therapy focuses on the psychological issues of ADHD (for example, self-esteem, self-acceptance, self-blame) while the cognitive rehabilitation approach focuses on life management skills for improving cognitive functions (remembering, reasoning, understanding, problem solving, evaluating, and using judgment), learning compensatory strategies, and restructuring the environment.
Medication management in women with ADHD
Medication issues are often more complicated for women with ADHD than for men. Any medication approach needs to take into consideration all aspects of the woman's life, including the treatment of coexisting conditions. Women with ADHD are more likely to suffer from coexisting anxiety and/or depression as well as a range of other conditions including learning disabilities. Since alcohol and drug use disorders are common in women with ADHD and may be present at an early age, a careful history of substance use is important.
Medication may be further complicated by hormone fluctuations across the menstrual cycle and across the lifespan (e.g., puberty, perimenopause, and menopause) with an increase in ADHD symptoms whenever estrogen levels fall. In some cases, hormone replacement may need to be integrated into the medication regimen used to treat ADHD.
For more information on medication management in adults with ADHD, see Medication Management.
Other treatment approaches
Women with ADHD may benefit from one or more of the following treatment approaches:
1. Parent training. In most families, the primary parent is the mother. Mothers are expected to be the household and family manager—roles that require focus, organization and planning, as well as the ability to juggle multiple responsibilities. ADHD, however, typically interferes with these abilities, making the job of mother much more difficult for women with ADHD.
Furthermore, because ADHD is hereditary, a woman with ADHD is more likely than a woman without the disorder to have a child with ADHD, further increasing her parenting challenges. Women may need training in parenting and household management geared toward adults with ADHD. The evidence-based parent management programs found to be effective in children with ADHD are also recommended for parents with ADHD. However, research on these parent training approaches has indicated that parent training may be less effective if the mother has high levels of ADHD symptoms. Thus, it may be necessary to incorporate adult ADHD life management strategies into parent training programs for mothers with ADHD.
2. Group therapy. Social problems for females with ADHD develop early and appear to increase with age. Women with ADHD have greater self-esteem problems than men with ADHD, and often feel shame when comparing themselves to women without ADHD. Because many women with ADHD feel shame and rejection, psychotherapy groups specifically designed for women with ADHD may provide a therapeutic experience―a place where they can feel understood and accepted by other women and a safe place to begin their journey toward accepting themselves more and learning to better manage their lives.
3. ADHD coaching. ADHD coaching, a new profession, has developed in response to the need among some adults with ADHD for structure, support and focus. Coaching often takes place by telephone or e-mail. For more information on coaching, see Coaching.
4. Professional organizing. As contemporary lives have become increasingly complicated, the organizer profession has grown to meet the demand. Women with ADHD typically struggle with very high levels of disorganization in many areas of their lives. Some women are able to maintain organization at work, but at the expense of an organized home. For others, disorganization is widespread, which increases the challenges and difficulties of ADHD. A professional organizer can provide hands-on assistance in sorting, discarding, filing, and storing items in a home or office, helping to set up systems that are easier to maintain. For more information on organization, see Organizing and Time Management.
5. Career guidance. Just as women with ADHD may need specific guidance as a parent with ADHD, they may also greatly benefit from career guidance, which can help them take advantage of their strengths and minimize the impact of ADHD on workplace performance. Many professional and office jobs involve the very tasks and responsibilities that are most challenging for a person with ADHD, including paying attention to detail, scheduling, paperwork, and maintaining an organized workspace. Sometimes a career or job change is necessary to reduce the intense daily stress often experienced in the workplace by most individuals with ADHD. A career counselor who is familiar with ADHD can provide very valuable guidance. For more information, see Workplace Issues.
Ways that women with ADHD can help themselves
It is helpful for a women with ADHD to work initially with a professional to develop better life and stress management strategies. However, the following strategies can be used at home, without the guidance of a therapist, coach or organizer to reduce the impact of ADHD:
Individuals with ADHD have different needs and challenges, depending on their gender, age and environment. Unrecognized and untreated, ADHD may have substantial mental health and education implications. It is important that women with ADHD receive an accurate diagnosis that addresses both symptoms and other important issues with functioning and impairment, which will help determine appropriate treatment and strategies for the individual woman with ADHD.