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A Tale of Two Sisters (and Two ADHDs)

“In my house, one daughter moves all the time. The other has trouble getting moving. One explodes loudly and angrily every morning transitioning from sleep to school. One quietly starts her day with cereal. One rushes through homework to get it done, so she can move right on to the next thing. The other one gets so caught in the idea of perfection she can’t even start the task at hand. Two sisters who couldn’t be more different, both diagnosed with ADHD.”

From the moment my youngest daughter joined our home, she asserted her presence, loudly, and was in perpetual motion.

We adopted Ainsley at 5 months old. She would roll clear across the living room, even before she could crawl, just to grab hold of whatever her older sister, Payton, was playing with at the time. She never stopped moving, so we learned to move with her, and she drove us straight to the gym to get fit so we could keep up with our two-foot tornado girl.

It was anything but a surprise when we started seeing symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD) in Ainsley. The hyperactivity element had always been there and so her diagnosis was no shock at all. This was a child who screamed “Pay attention to me!” — sometimes literally. She’d walk right out the front door if the mood hit her from the age of 3, or 4. As a result, we were hypervigilant.

Payton was 3 when we adopted Ainsley. She was bright and cheery, a curious girl, who could sit for hours reading books or playing with dolls. Payton got good grades in most subjects and positive comments on report cards. She was “delightful” and a “great helper.” In grade 3, we started to see more comments about her being a “social butterfly” and being lost “in her own little world.”

Together, she and her friend Lily made up stories and role played scenarios at recess and during free time. I loved how creative she was and encouraged that. Both teachers and friends would often comment on how she calmed the other kids down during times of boisterous play, or if they were having any sort of emotional issue.

Payton empathized easily and wanted to help always. But, by grade four, her homework began to slide, and teachers were forever commenting on work that was not complete. She was slow getting started at projects and they were often lost, misplaced, or forgotten. Her homework was never in the right spot and it was often all crumpled up by the time it arrived home.

[Self-Test: The ADHD Test for Girls]

Never once did Payton explode at school and she had all kinds of coping mechanisms, but the gap grew bigger between what we knew she knew and what she was getting completed during school. The year she was labelled lazy I started pushing hard for testing to figure out what was going on. To this day, I still shake my head that anyone can assume a child is lazy without recognizing that something else is going on. And sometimes I am still amazed that this assessment came back as ADHD – inattentive subtype.

The quiet, dreamy girl. The explosive sporty ninja. Two sisters who couldn’t be more different, both diagnosed with ADHD. Some days I still wonder at this.

For years, friends parenting young boys with ADHD would tell me that ADHD in girls looks quite different than ADHD in boys. Yes, sometimes it does. But not always.

Kids with the hyperactivity characteristic are often easier to pick out of a crowd, regardless of gender. And clearly, even girls in the same family with ADHD can look completely different. There are a lot of common symptoms that are red flags for ADHD. Hyperactivity is one that everyone understands, but it’s still so easy to miss those other symptoms like appearing inattentive and dreamy or having trouble getting started on schoolwork.

[Self-Test: Could Your Child Have Inattentive ADHD?]

In my house, one daughter moves all the time. The other has trouble getting moving. One explodes loudly and angrily every morning transitioning from sleep to school. One quietly starts her day with cereal. One rushes through homework to get it done, so she can move right on to the thing she wants to do most – usually sports – and the other agonizes over making work perfect. In fact, sometimes she gets so caught in the idea of perfection she can’t even start the task at hand.

Both need a lot of time decompressing after being around people. Both have some sensory issues that irritate and aggravate their moods and behaviours. And both can also sometimes be incredibly insightful and sensitive.

My two daughters have some common accommodations at school. For instance, they both get extra time for tests, and they both require help with planning and managing time. I encourage both to regularly seek out the visiting therapy dog at their high school to alleviate stress. They both require preferential seating and one has often used a cue to indicate to the teacher that she needs to leave the room for a break, no questions asked, when anxiety threatens to become full blown panic.

One is kinesthetic and visual as well as quite social. The other often needs to wear hoodies and sometimes noise cancelling headphones to shut everyone and everything out. My youngest complains often of headaches and finds noise exhausting. She needs to be alone in her room after school, but she resists naps. My oldest, who also juggles generalized anxiety disorder, will get in from work or school and sometimes give me a play by play of everything that happened that day, before she falls fast asleep.

I used to think this odd that my older daughter never outgrew napping. But she genuinely needs it on school days. So, she sleeps for half an hour or more, completely exhausted by the demands of being in a class or teaching martial arts. She needs a lot of visual reminders for due dates and projects. A huge white board in her room helps all of us.

Not surprisingly, my two girls responded to completely different medications. While it took a while to figure those out, stimulants work for my hyperactive youngest and my oldest needs non-stimulants.

Many years ago, I went to school with kids who had ADHD, and my Mom was a teacher who taught several kids with this diagnosis. Every single one of those kids was a boy with hyperactivity as their prevailing symptom. Had I never been given these two girls to parent, I’d never have imagined this diagnosis could take different forms and faces.

Parenting my girls gives me an insider’s perspective on the many ways ADHD can look and act within families. You know that saying seeing is believing, well parenting is believing, adjusting, supporting, and finding a new way.

[Easy Accommodations for Kids with ADHD: Free Downloadable Card]

Updated on September 20, 2019

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  1. This article was so relatable. My oldest daughter has the hyperactive type of ADHD and my youngest has not been diagnosed (she is only 4) but has characteristics and behaviors that make me think she might have inattentive ADHD. She is very imaginative, very social and other kids are drawn to her but she gets lost in her own world frequently. I think this article picks up something important for parents of neurotypical and non neurotypical alike, that each child is different and parenting is not one size fits all. Help your children find what works for them, help them to understand that not everyone’s brain is the same and thus everyone has different needs. You seem very well attuned to all of your children, what a powerful impact that must be having on them.

  2. This is a wonderful article, thank you so much for sharing your experiences with your daughters. Would you mind sharing what kind of non-stimulant medications work for your daughter with inattentive ADHD? That would be so very helpful, thank you so much.

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