“My Older Sister Had ADHD All Along”
“My sister became a P.E. teacher who has had a fruitful career for 30 years. She took all that untapped potential and all her hyperactivity, and she literally ran with it. She has loved building a special rapport with all the students who show up to school distracted, dysregulated, disheveled, disorganized, and decidedly exuberant, just like she did so many years ago.”
My older sister, Marie, wishes that she knew she had ADHD when she was in elementary or middle school. It would have reduced a lot of the confusion, poor self-esteem, and bad mojo that she schlepped around like a big, bulky, burdensome sack. If we knew what ADHD really was back in the 1980s, and my sister knew she had it, she thinks she would have had a much easier time in life.
“I think I would have been kinder to myself and had more self-compassion,” she told me. “And Mom wouldn’t have been mad at me all the time.”
My Colorful Older Sister
Back then, we all characterized my older sister as extroverted, exuberant, athletic, impulsive, messy, vocal, brash, forgetful, mercurial, feisty, and smart, but scattered. She was a talented and gifted student but didn’t usually have the grades to match — though she pulled epic all-nighters and could get those grades up when the heat was on. Her teachers admonished her for being highly capable but not getting assignments done, or getting them done, but not turning them in. Her report cards said she was too chatty and off-task.
She played all the sports, and excelled at all of them, despite constantly breaking her bones and needing all manner of casts due to her ballsy plays. She gravitated toward friends who were exceptionally fun, but not exceptionally grounded or studious. She lived life loudly and to the fullest and often on the edge, which I found intriguing and admirable. If she was the life of the party, I was the partially alive person on life support in the corner.
Although she seemed happy through my little-sister lens, I couldn’t deny that my sister was always in trouble. My exasperated single mom was often in some sort of intense negotiation with her about chores, grades, or behavior. We saw lots of drama, struggle, and strife under our roof.
And while my sister may have been a riot, the outward cheerfulness and perkiness that she exuded was just the tip of the visible iceberg. There was a large, icy mass of pain that lurked beneath the surface like tons of water and carbon locked up in a giant iceberg.
Why Are Girls with ADHD So Invisible?
As an adult, I am sad for my big sister’s childhood suffering. Unfortunately, her experience seems to be the norm for quite a few people, especially for many women and girls.
Research tells us that girls are routinely misdiagnosed, underdiagnosed, and overlooked for ADHD. One reason for this, out of several, seems to be that many girls are internalizers rather than externalizers. They turn the criticism and hostility they feel from the world inward. They stress about social dynamics, overthink about how they behaved or what they said, compare themselves to the successful girls, and feel crappy about themselves. No wonder so many girls and women with ADHD are also diagnosed with anxiety or depression.
Boys, on the other hand, tend to be externalizers – and it’s apparently way easier to spot ADHD when it comes out through disruptive, obvious behaviors.
Basically, girls seem to be better at masking their challenges and try harder to follow social and behavioral norms. Though my sister may not have fit this mold perfectly, she also developed a lot of self-loathing.
The Sister is Alright (and the Kids Are, Too)
My sister’s ADHD diagnosis eventually arrived – along with her middle school daughter’s. (There’s nothing like filling out a bunch of checklists for someone else that are undeniably relevant to you.)
There’s a happy coda to my sister’s life. She became a P.E. teacher who has had a fruitful career for 30 years. She took all that untapped potential and all her hyperactivity, and she literally ran with it. She has enjoyed teaching all the sports — even yoga — and helping students connect with their bodies and minds. Even more importantly, she has loved building a special rapport with all the students who show up distracted, dysregulated, disheveled, disorganized, and decidedly exuberant, just like she did so many years ago.
“I can see ADHD in my students and not take their inability to attend personally, so I’m more patient and compassionate with them,” she says. “I am also probably goofier and more spontaneous, which I think my students of all abilities appreciate.”
Being a teacher with ADHD has undeniably helped her be a better educator.
“Modeling something other than the ‘perfect’ human is a gift to kids who see themselves as outside the norm.”
Older Sister with ADHD: Next Steps
- Download: Do I Have ADHD? A Guide for Women
- Read: Growing Up, I Never Knew My Sister Had ADHD
- Read: Parenting the Child Whose Sibling Has ADHD
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