Viral on TikTok: How women with ADHD go undiagnosed

Published March 17, 2021


picture of a distracted woman trying to work

Inability to focus. Forgetfulness. Frustration with time management and organization. These are just a few of the symptoms linked with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Millions of people struggle with some form of it from childhood to adulthood.

Videos about ADHD have recently been going viral on TikTok. Comments on the videos say things like:

"I think I might have ADHD but I don't wanna self diagnose. It runs in my family."
"I've had these traits for years. Maybe I have ADHD?"
"This is definitely checking some boxes. I didn't know struggling with this stuff wasn't typical."

Thanks to social media, there seems to be less of a stigma surrounding an ADHD diagnosis these days. Sadly, stigma in the past prevented treatment for girls that are now struggling as adults. For a girl with undiagnosed ADHD, increased risks may include:

•    Development of a substance abuse disorder 
•    Lower school performance and receiving the message they're "just not good at school"
•    Struggle with further education or not finishing educational programs at all
•    Problems with finding and maintaining a suitable career as an adult

ADHD symptoms in girls and women

We now better understand how ADHD tends to show up in girls, but some still go undiagnosed for years. "We know girls are much less likely to receive a diagnosis of ADHD than boys because boys tend to be more hyperactive and disruptive. Girls tend to be inattentive, which can go unnoticed by parents and teachers," says Nebraska Medicine psychiatrist Sharon Hammer, MD, who specializes in women's mental health.
An increasing number of adult women seek help, many of whom ultimately look back and recognize a pattern of symptoms since childhood. "ADHD is the most genetic and inheritable illness of all psychiatric illnesses," says Dr. Hammer. "The most at-risk people are those with a family history of ADHD. We see a lot of women come in for help when they have a child of their own get diagnosed and realize they have many of the same symptoms."

As opposed to boys, girls with ADHD tend to internalize their struggles and blame themselves without garnering the attention of the adults in their lives. They may manifest anxiety or depression, which is secondary to inattention. "About 50% of adult women with ADHD have a comorbid condition. Many times we end up seeing a person due to anxiety or depression, and through that, we end up discovering the ADHD," says Dr. Hammer. "In my practice, it seems rare to have a woman come in and say 'I think I may have ADHD.' They come in and talk about how anxious, frustrated or irritable they are."

Do symptoms differ between adult men and women?

ADHD symptoms appear more alike in adulthood, but the reasons for seeking help may look different. Hyperactivity symptoms tend to decline, while inattentiveness becomes a primary symptom. 

Men seem to present with symptoms because they may have issues at work, for example. Women tend to present with symptoms in a more complex way. This difference may be due to how women function and measure themselves by cultural expectations. Women tend to multitask – juggle family, manage the home, maintain relationships and function at work – all of which takes an enormous amount of mental energy.
"When women don't feel like they're succeeding, they end up blaming themselves and suffer in silence," says Dr. Hammer. "Women with ADHD are under chronic stress due to their inattention, procrastination and problems with time management. This leads to a vicious cycle with chronic stress often resulting in other mental health problems." 

You don't have to suffer in silence

About half of women with ADHD continue to struggle well into adulthood, especially during life transitions. It's never too late to seek help and treatment. "If we miss it in childhood, we've missed an opportunity," says Dr. Hammer. "When we look back with adult women who present with ADHD symptoms, we often see a pattern of struggles from childhood, especially during times of major life transitions like leaving home, getting their first job, getting
married or having a baby."

If you find that you're struggling with the following symptoms, it may be time to talk to someone.

  • Easily distracted
  • Hard to maintain focus for extended periods
  • When interrupted, you struggle with getting back on track
  • Time management issues – how much time has gone by or how much time is needed
  • Struggle with organization – getting things organized and then maintaining structure
  • Procrastination because you feel overwhelmed and don't know where to start

Treatment may include things like skills training, counseling, and medications. "If you're really struggling in a way that seems beyond others, and it's negatively affecting your functioning or negatively affecting your family life, then I encourage you to talk with a mental health specialist," says Dr. Hammer. "ADHD is highly responsive to treatment with both psychotherapy and medication. Treatment can be life-changing."
Remember, you are in control. Treatment is all about your goals. There's nothing to be afraid of when it comes to seeking out mental health help. If this resonates with you, and you’d like to speak with one of our mental health professionals, call 800.922.0000