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ADHD Friendship Struggles: An interview with Dr. Tracy Alloway

Maybe it's nothing, but you've noticed that lately your friends are calling you out for your lateness, forgetfulness, and your daydreaming. You've always had these tendencies, but you've never really had others pointed out to you.

After a quick Google search, you find that these are symptoms of ADHD--at least, how it presents itself in women. Now you're wondering if sharing your newfound diagnosis would come across as an excuse for the ways that you've been dropping the ball lately with your friends. So how do you bridge the gap?

We recently interviewed Dr. Tracy Alloway, Ph. D. who is known for her popular research on memory and the brain.

If you've been curious about the ways ADHD might be impacting your friendships (whether you have it or not), this interview is for you. Feel free to continue reading, or listen to the interview on the Friend Forward podcast.

Dr. Tracy Alloway

What is ADHD?

Danielle Bayard Jackson: Let's start with a baseline. What is ADHD?

Dr. Alloway: We hear the label used quite frequently, and so there's a difference between people maybe using it as a shorthand like, "Hey, I wasn't paying attention. I'm so ADHD!" to a clinical diagnosis of ADHD, where you're looking at the frequency of those hyperactive, impulsive, and inattentive behaviors, and not just the frequency, but the significant impact on the functioning that person has in their friendships, their everyday life, even their work balance.

Danielle Bayard Jackson: Yeah, I'm glad you touched on that because especially in the time of social media, so much of this mental health language is going mainstream, and I'm just going to keep it real: I am sensitive to it, I really am. But at the same time, I see how loose we're getting. And so it's hard sometimes, trying to differentiate between what's accurate and what's not. And so for a person who does have ADHD, is this different? Does it present itself differently in men than women? I know you specialize in this-- a lot of your content is about women's experiences and brain wiring.

How does ADHD look in women?

Dr. Alloway: ADHD does look different in women than it does in men. As a result, it often gets undiagnosed in females, especially in childhood.

So for males, the way that they demonstrate their ADHD symptoms is often that hyperactive, that impulsivity, the kind of traditional ways we think of when we hear of ADHD. In contrast, for females, that's more being inattentive, the daydreaming. It often gets overlooked, especially in the classroom because the girls aren't causing a problem. They're not paying attention, but they're not being disruptive. So the teacher notices little Janie isn't listening, but she's not being disruptive either.

Oftentimes that results in an undiagnosed concern later on and difficulty as they progress through their academic career. It can also result in mental health issues.

Many times we see what's called comorbidity, where you have ADHD together with anxiety, where that sense of ADHD results in a procrastination. In part, it's how the brain is wired. It's set up to needing that very strict structure. When we don't have that externally, we're not going to put that on ourselves internally simply because that ADHD brain doesn't create that structure for ourselves. So we procrastinate and that can feed into anxiety.

"ADHD is hurting my friendships.": The ADHD Friendship Struggle

Danielle Bayard Jackson: Interesting, as you're describing that, I'm thinking of things women have shared with me in terms of certain conflicts-- "pinches"-- where there's this tension with a friend who is late or forgetful or who doesn't follow through with that thing that she said she would.

But the friend often responds with, "Well, you know I have ADHD."

While the ADHD woman has friends who sympathize with her diagnosis, they might often feel forgotten, uncared for, or convinced that the friend is not as invested in the friendship.

How does ADHD impact friendships?

Dr. Alloway: There's a huge body of research looking specifically at ADHD and social skills. And there are two ways in which ADHD can impact friendships.

ADHD and Impulsivity: One is that impulsivity, so you might have that friend that's always blurting in jumping in, changing plans at the last minute. And for them it's like, I'm just being spontaneous, I'm being involved. I'm just jumping on supporting you when in fact, that impulsivity, that inability to wait their turn, even in conversations, even in planning, may be interpreted as, hey, you're disregarding what I value, what I would like to do, I'm sharing right now, and you're talking over me.

But for the friend with ADHD, they're not viewing it as that way. So that impulsivity can show up as a lack of caring, a lack of concern for space, for other people's sort of turn taking. Very simply put, in a conversation, that's the first way that that can impact friendships.

ADHD and Procrastination: The other is that procrastination, which can show up in being late to events. So that procrastination is that ADHD brain is wired that, "Oh, I have 30 minutes, I have lots of time," Suddenly, they're 30 minutes late now. And so that can show up in a friendship situation, is they just don't care. They're not invested enough in this event. This party was important to me. Why couldn't you show up in time?

Recognize that there's not malice involved in those actions-- not to excuse them, but purely from a descriptive perspective, the brain of the ADHD person is wired differently. That prefrontal cortex, that planning, that thinking ahead, is often under active in the ADHD brain, even in adults. And that's why we do know there are certain techniques to help that.

Tips for navigating friendships with ADHD

Dr. Alloway: But from the recipient of those ADHD behaviors, maybe that knowledge can help you recognize that, okay, maybe I need to give them a 30 minutes window. If the event starts at seven, I need to tell them it starts at 6:30-- kind of do the "dad move" where you move up that deadline a little bit more.

But recognizing that there's not necessarily a mal intent involved in their behaviors, their brain is wired that way. And again, it doesn't excuse that behavior, but it can maybe help you as the recipient, have some clarification, some explanations.

[You can also try offering] a script. Say, "Hey, when I'm sharing, I would love to finish my sentence, and then I would be happy to hear that." It provides them that structure. And it can be very helpful to say, "I would like to talk till I'm done venting or sharing. And then when I say, tell me what you think or what do you feel or what should I do, that's your cue. I want to hear your opinion at that point. But until that time, I just need to unload a little bit, and I'm looking for our friendship as an opportunity to do that."

For the person with ADHD: Recognize that about yourself, knowing that in conversation, maybe you do get so excited and it's hard to control that excitement you want to blurt in.

What can you do?

Do you kind of sit in your hands almost as a physical reminder that when I'm sitting on my hands, that's a cue to my brain. Don't talk it. And so creating that menu for yourself, if you're the person that's wanting to moderate these behaviors a little bit more, come up with a menu--not just one thing, because maybe your hands are busy and you're holding something food, drinks, and you can't sit on them. What are some other things that you can do to just communicate to your brain, "Hey, it's not your turn right now." Maybe simply you just bite your lip a little bit or chew gum. Something that communicates that this has to wait just a moment.

Is it ADHD or anxiety?

One of the key things to also think about is sometimes we take on too much. Especially as women, we multitask and our brain does work more synergistically. We tend to work on multiple tasks simultaneously, and we do a fairly efficient job of that. And sometimes, though, when we have too many plates on the go, it can feel like we have ADHD brain.

So begin recognizing in yourself, "Is this the disorder, like a clinical diagnosis? Or is it just, I've taken on too much and I need to take a step back or accept that this is temporary, it is a busy season and I'm okay in a month. "

There's an end inside and I can slow everything down. So I think recognizing too for yourself when you're feeling overwhelmed, are you forgetting things? Are you kind of not paying attention as much? Do you just want to rush to get things done? Those are symptoms of ADHD, but they may also be symptoms of multitasking at a sort of super level that maybe we need to tone down a little bit because it's actually negatively impacting us. So recognizing too that tension between the symptoms versus that actual disorder that has a more pervasive and permanent impact for us.

Friendship Coach Support and Friendship Resources

If you're ready to be among like-minded women who are JUST as intentional about friendship as you are, join our group chat. Have any questions about online friendship coaching or need a friendship expert as a speaker? Check out our different personal coaching services or contact us online for quick responses on any of your questions! We provide advice on how to make friends, navigating toxic relationships, friendship breakups, and other issues common in female platonic relationships. Want to get closer with your girl friends? We can help!

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