Like most moms, I can clearly recall the moment my baby was first placed into my arms. It was real… She was here! Ten fingers, ten toes, bright eyes, and a cute little mouth with pink, bowed lips. She was perfect. My urge to protect her and offer her the happiest life possible was immediate.
Looking back, almost 15 years later, I can see I was brimming with the idealism innate to most all new parents. Our babies often represent a fresh start, a clean and bright beginning. The hopes we project onto them are inevitable. But life almost always has other plans.
When my daughter was 2, I realized that I needed to leave my marriage. I left with no savings, assets, or job. When she was 4, my mother had a massive brain hemorrhage. After my mother died, my stepfather was in an accident and required care before eventually also dying. I battled through graduate school during this time.
I noticed that my daughter was unique as she reached school age. She was brilliant, verbose, and creative, but also different in her behaviors. She began to have massive meltdowns after school every day — tears, tantrums on the floor, and generally losing her shit, especially if homework was on the table.
Though she was extremely bright and an early reader, tearing through Harry Potter books in second grade, she also struggled in the classroom. It was hard for her stay on task, and she got out of her seat during lessons. I struggled to reconcile how my child, who was reading at an adult level and had unusually mature social insights, could also be so messy, irritable, disruptive, and so often unable to focus. As I searched myself and the world for an answer, I took the road we so often do as mothers. I blamed myself. Even my experience as a therapist and years of studying child psychology couldn’t help with the huge blind spot I had when it came to my own kid.
[Read: Why ADHD in Girls Is Often Overlooked]
Maybe it was because of the divorce — or because of my grief. Maybe I had spent too much time studying. I read to her every night, but maybe if I had focused more on math, she would be doing better with it. Essentially, I blamed myself for everything.
As I tried to gather more info from “the experts,” I felt even worse. Seasoned parents told me that my daughter was disrespectful and needed a firm hand. School meetings, where I faced a row of teachers telling me about behavioral issues, left me feeling as though I was on trial. Even meeting with child therapists for consults confused me, since they’d only tell me that my daughter was precocious and creative and seemed to have a high IQ, but they did not otherwise offer any concrete help.
I pushed my daughter into martial arts, amped up her nutrition, discussed her ongoing issues with my mental health colleagues, and tried different therapists. Deep down, I saw her struggles as my own shortcomings. I was exhausted — and it didn’t help that she slept erratically.
Without answers, my daughter’s struggles worsened. Things had spiraled into a hatred for school, difficulty with activity transitions, trouble with organizational tasks, panic attacks, and even thoughts of self-harm.
[Read: 5 Things Every Doctor (and Parent) Should Know about Girls and ADHD]
It was our pediatric primary care provider who finally brought up ADHD. Could it really be that my daughter’s brain just needed some extra dopamine? ADHD ran in my family and in her father’s family as well. I began to wonder what a pediatric ADHD prescription would do.
As it turned out, it did a lot. Once we found the right medication and dose, the world opened up for my daughter. Her anxiety quieted. Her focus improved. Thoughts of self-harm and panic attacks receded. What’s more, she he was having fun. Life wasn’t a constantly overwhelming battle. We could both breathe.
I wondered why my daughter’s diagnosis had been so hard to arrive at and why it had taken so long, even for me, a mom and a trauma-informed therapist with a clinical degree. As I reviewed research on ADHD, things became clearer.
We often think of wild and unruly boys when we picture ADHD. The reality is that many girls are also silently suffering with ADHD without any understanding or support. That’s why ADHD is more commonly diagnosed in boys and is often underdiagnosed in girls. Educator and medical provider bias may also contribute to this.
Girls are more often misdiagnosed (or only diagnosed) with depression or anxiety. Socialization patterns may also be a factor. Some researchers theorize that girls are more likely to “mask” ADHD symptoms. This is particularly concerning, because research indicates that ADHD in girls is correlated with more severe pathologies such as self-harm and major depression. These unique risks mean that our girls are in danger if an ADHD diagnosis is missed or delayed.
Today, my daughter is thriving. In my clinical work, I now advocate for girls to be automatically screened for ADHD if they are struggling with what seems like anxiety or mood dysregulation. I wish I had the information I have now when my daughter was in her early grade school years. I’m grateful, however, that I now have the awareness to fight for her and for other girls.
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