A child’s learning and attention issues can be one of the biggest struggles parents can face. It can have tremendous effects on not only the child, but the parents’ relationship. It’s not uncommon that parents don’t see eye-to-eye when it comes to a child’s LD, and this causes even more conflict. These difficulties are only made rougher by the fact that men and women are different, and this can lead to big differences in how fathers and mothers cope with a child’s learning and attention issues.
I know that what I’m writing is not true for every family, but it is true for mine, and many or most that I see in my practice. I’ve been a speech language pathologist for over three decades—and while I may be generalizing a bit here, I truly believe that men have a harder time accepting their children’s disabilities or learning challenges. But understanding these gender differences can help mothers and fathers work together as a team, despite their differing approaches, to help their child with LD.
Moms, Dads and ConflictThe mothers I encounter are generally highly tuned in to their child’s learning and emotional needs. However subtle, moms sense issues their children are facing. They know when they’re struggling. And in many families, moms are at the front lines of communication with a child’s teachers and other school staff—although many of the fathers I know both personally and professionally care very deeply about their child’s success, they are often not the ones sending daily emails to teachers or taking the child to speech therapy appointments.
These mothers seem to be more accepting of the truth and willing to seek out answers when they suspect something just isn’t quite right with their child’s learning or behavior. And this is where the conflict between moms and dads often begins. Time and time again, I’ve seen situations where one parent (often the mother) genuinely suspects that the child’s struggles come from a problem like a learning disability, but the other parent feels that the child may be lazy or just not working hard enough. “If only she would concentrate and attend to…whatever,” I hear. Or, “Why can she learn long dance choreography, but can’t memorize things in school? She must not want to.”
None of this is to say that fathers care about their children’s learning struggles less than mothers do, or that they always doubt an LD diagnosis. Often, dads show great concern for their child’s learning issues, but they don’t always know quite how to go about helping. Work schedule constraints often force families to pick one parent to go to IEP meetings or take the child to various therapy appointments. Dads often get information second-hand and have to rely heavily on their spouse to learn what’s going with a child’s learning. That’s part of the reason why they may deny there is a problem.
Moving Beyond Conflict: Our Family’s StoryWhen one parent is in denial of a child’s learning or attention issues, it’s damaging to every aspect of the family relationship. The opportunity for open, honest communication—which is important in any family, but crucial when a child has LD—is cut off. As marital counselors around the world will preach, communication between partners is the key to success for maintaining a healthy relationship. That translates to open, trusting dialogue between partners, especially on difficult topics surrounding a child. But I know that it’s easy to write those words, but so hard to do.
It was exceptionally hard for me and my husband, who for years did not truly understand the depth and breadth of our daughter’s LD. I tried talking to him when we were alone but could not get through to him. On one occasion early on in our family LD journey he agreed to go to a child psychologist with me. To my dismay, he sat there with his arms folded and legs crossed, with an expression on his face that was clearly the body language of man who did not want to be there and was not really invested in the process. That session was a disaster and we never went back. It was so disappointing to me but not really surprising. It took many more years until he came around.
He finally did after we got a diagnosis from a neuropsychologist, and he was sad and regretted not listening for all those years. To his credit, he apologized to me and to our daughter for his lack of understanding. Most importantly, his change in attitude allowed for open communication between the three of us. He became a tremendous support to both of us, and a real champion for our daughter’s needs. I think it strengthened his relationship with our daughter, by showing her that he truly understood the challenges she faced and sometimes still faces.
I certainly have seen, and continue to see fathers who bring their children to therapies and who are well versed in LD. Fathers can also be very strong advocates for their children. I always love when parents come for their child’s speech evaluation as a team. They are both aware that something is wrong, even if they can’t quite put their fingers on it. Sometimes they both can describe their child’s issue quite well, but even if they can’t, once the child’s issue is identified, they are accepting and ready to move forward and get their child help.
Parents who work together to help a child learn and grow appear to have less conflict within the family and between themselves as a couple. The child feels the support due to a shared understanding of her needs and acceptance of her strengths and weaknesses. We all know that no one is perfect, and that talking about what we know about learning styles and your child’s specific learning disability can only enhance the academic experience in your child’s life.
Tips for Parents
Make every effort to be a team.
Attend meetings, evaluations and consultations as a team to work as partners in understanding your child’s learning and attention issues.
Believe in your child’s ability.
As a parent you must understand that learning challenges are very real and can be quite frustrating at any age.
Have a positive attitude about the future (even when it’s hard to imagine it).
Higher academic institutions are continuing to recognize that students with learning and attention issues need support, as they are becoming young adults.
Ellyn Levy is a speech language pathologist and supervisor of adult and pediatric speech pathology at a large NYC hospital. She is the parent of two adult children who, along with her husband, are the center of her universe. Her daughter had learning challenges from the time she was a young child. Ellyn has always believed that this fact has helped her relate more easily to the parents of the children she treats in her practice.