Class wills are a bygone tradition when graduating seniors in high school, will something to the poor saps who have to come back next year. When I was a junior in high school, I was elected to read the class wills at the Junior Senior Prom. In front of everyone I had to read, “I Sam Smith (the name has been changed to protect the guilty) will to Christi my pet rock so that she will have something in her head besides air.” I then went on to get my Ph.D. in Child Psychology. I have been blonde all my life. Strike one. I have been a happy, nice, person most of my life. Strike two. I often have my head in the clouds thinking about things most people would be surprised that I was thinking about. Strike three. People still automatically assume I am dumb. I have never thought I was dumb, but people’s perception of me probably did contribute, at least a little bit, to my relentless pursuit of letters; Ph.D. Finally, proof I was not a dumb blonde!
I now think of people’s automatic assumption that I’m stupid as one of my superpowers. When people assume I’m stupid and then find out I’m not, it makes a bigger, and more memorable, impression. I like it that I can choose to fly under the radar, or surprise people. I now understand people’s impression of me in high school was people reacting to my Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).
I think most of my teachers, from kindergarten through graduate school, would laugh that I have diagnosed myself with ADD. Any of my former math or spelling teachers would say, “Oh, yeah, that explains a lot!” I think of school as girl school and I’m a girl. It is designed for girls, like me, who loved pleasing the teachers by behaving well and getting good grades. Girls like me could sit for hours coloring and doing worksheets. I also love to learn. I loved school. Guess what? Teachers love girls like me! That’s how you go through 23 years of school and never once have anyone notice that you have ADD. It happens to many girls.
ADD is often very subtle in girls. It can be in boys, too, if they are not the ones bouncing off the walls. Inattention is invisible. Girls often express ADD in a more social and emotional way, by being emotionally impulsive. When hyper-focus combines with social and emotional impulsivity, girls react quickly and then are not able to stop thinking about how they were righted or wronged. An example would be that a girl can’t stop thinking about being told by a friend on the way into a test that she is the smartest person in class and it gives her confidence. Another example would be when a girl thinks she heard a friend say something mean about her and then she can’t stop thinking, “Why doesn’t anyone like me?” The first example increases self-esteem and the second decreases self-esteem.
After seeing hundreds of girls with ADD, I believe there are two common ways girls express ADD:
The Super Pleaser
Some girls with ADD want only one or two friends and become very upset if the friends are not loyal. Loyal meaning: not playing with anyone else. The Super Pleaser is often overly ridged with rules and schedule. They are also often anxious when they think they are not following the rules. The worry about getting into trouble. They are often perfectionistic. They tend to be overly sensitive to criticism and hold grudges for days, months, even years.
The Super Pleaser rarely forgets anything that happens in life, but often forget things like the notebook that was sitting beside them at breakfast or that piano lessons are today. They misplace things they use everyday like their shoes, an article of clothing, and paperwork only to find it after blaming someone else for taking it. They often have test anxiety or school anxiety in general.
Often, the Super Pleaser becomes over-organized. Their anxiety about rule following and their past mistakes make them hyper-focused on not making the same mistake again because of their lack of attention to homework and/or organization. It is not uncommon for the Super Pleaser with ADD to go back and forth between extremely well organized to everything out of control; sometimes many times a day.
The Super Pleaser usually intends to do chores and follows requests given by parents or teachers. When she doesn’t, it is not usually malicious but that she forgot a step or got distracted playing or doing something else. She tries to sit and listen when instructed but often ends up saying, “Wait, What?” Socially she can drift off into her own thoughts and not hear a word of what peers are saying until one interesting word or thought jumps out to her and she has missed the whole conversation.
The Super Pleaser is often intuitive and very sensitive to their environment. They can tell when someone is angry without the person telling them. Trying to hide emotions from the Super Pleaser can be difficult to impossible. They detect even the slightest raise of the eyebrow and purse of the lips. The Super Pleaser will become overwhelmed in chaos and large crowds. She becomes emotionally exhausted and often likes being alone. She can be more sensitive to hormone fluctuations and Premenstrual Syndrome.
The Alley Cat
The Alley Cat is a rambler when it comes to friends. She prefers to move from person to person or group to group. When a better or more exciting offer comes along, she goes with it. She is a risk taker and thrives on attention when she is “on stage” with an exciting story or action like being the first to try an intimidating amusement park ride. She often embellishes stories and actions no one has witnessed. Sometimes she is the ringleader, but more often she is the new exciting member of the group who moves on when she can not gain the leadership role.
Teachers and parents often feel as though the Alley Cat is not living up to her potential. Whereas the Super Pleaser tries too hard, the Alley Cat does not try hard enough. Missed assignments? She’s often smart enough to catch up just in time and knows how to meet the minimum requirements. The Alley Cat will see something funny going on in the classroom and doesn’t wait to tell the person next to her, even if the teacher is talking.
An Alley Cat often looks obstinate in her procrastination. She digs in and says she won’t do it. She can have a blow-up with peers or parents one minute and act like nothing happened the next. She moves on too quickly and seems to have no remorse when she has really just forgotten all about what happened.
The Alley Cat is often very scrappy. She can be aggressive with peers and family. She is not one to be taken advantage of because she will immediately stand up for herself verbally or physically. She will talk back to parents and point out when they have made a mistake. She often feels her parents have a favorite child and it isn’t her.
Fickle is a good word to describe the Alley Cat because she often floats from one activity to the next. The Super Pleaser develops a passion, the Alley Cat has trouble finding anything about which she is passionate. She finds most things “boring.” The Alley Cat is more likely to try “grown-up” and illegal activities to get a sense of excitement.
Good Versus Bad
Each of these types of girls could have ADD. One is not better than the other. The Super Pleaser can have a lifetime of anxiety that borders on Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. The Alley Cat can be extremely creative and refreshingly spontaneous. Both types can be fun and difficult to parent. It is possible to have a combination of the two, in fact, it is preferable to have a combination of the two. All or nothing of something is usually not helpful.
To the Super Pleaser: a little lightening up would be great. Everyone makes mistakes. It’s all about how you fix a mistake. Super Pleasers may be given antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications when Attention Deficit Disorder is often the root cause. A Super Pleaser often needs help to move on and let things go.
The Alley Cat would do well to find something they love and stick to it. Sometimes parents need to be a little more diligent to set higher standards for when the Alley Cat can stop versus quit an activity. Encouraging commitment and completion helps teach that drifting from one thing to the next can be detrimental, especially to self-esteem. Alley Cats may end up feeling like they have not accomplished anything in their lives.
What to do
If the Super Pleaser or the Alley Cat descriptions sound like someone you know, it’s best to do more research. Daniel Amen’s book Healing ADD is a great resource. Go to my post about how ADD and ADHD are diagnosed. Start with your pediatrician or a psychologist who works regularly with ADD and ADHD.
A word of caution: the standard of care for diagnosing ADD often does not identify the Super Pleaser. Remember, they are teacher’s dream students. The pressure of keeping up a “perfect” facade is great. Because the Super Pleaser can’t focus, grades start to slip and they feel out of control. They may not feel as though they are working up to their potential. A good, but not foolproof, test of whether or not a Super Pleaser has ADD is if anxiety and depression symptoms, present during all or most of the school year, seem to magically go away during the summer. Summer relieves the pressure of “perfectly” keeping up with grades and rules.
It seems that girls who have the most difficulty are the girls who fit only one category. Girls who fit one category or the other and not a combination, are at highest risk for developing depression and anxiety the older they get. I am not advocating for medication. I am advocating for identification. It would have been nice for me to know in high school that ADD existed, and that I fit most or all of the diagnostic criteria. I probably would not have had the frustration of constantly, because I was a Super Pleaser, trying to prove I was not dumb.
In the end, I would not give up my Attention Deficit temperament. I am not disordered, and I like the superpowers it gives me. It makes me extremely goal directed, happy, and energetic. Once girls understand the Attention Deficit temperament it’s much easier to make it work positively in life.