Coping Strategies for Parents of Children With Learning Disabilities
The school year is officially in full swing. Class scheduling conflicts have been resolved, books have (hopefully) been covered, supplies purchased, and homework routines established. The never-large-enough boxes on kitchen calendars are filling up with carpool schedules, music lessons, and after-school clubs, and the intricate and ever-changing dance between families and schools is well under way. Knowing all too well that the next "crisis" is just around the corner, it may be an opportune time for parents to take a moment and do a quick self assessment: how will I feel when the phone rings and I hear about missing assignments, a melt-down in math class, an altercation in the lunch room, or a failing grade on a unit test? How should I react, and what steps should I take to ensure that I am making the best decisions for my child?
Actions vs. Feelings
Parents of students with learning disabilities (LD) and other special needs know the importance of establishing close and effective working partnerships with school personnel. Frequent meetings (in person or by phone and email) are (or should be) standard operating procedure to ensure that expectations are clear, roles and responsibilities are being met, and everyone (including the students themselves) feels empowered to seek to clarify and act upon concerns before they become problems. How we feel about the challenge du jour can have a profound impact upon how effective we are in addressing problems and maintaining the energy and optimism that is so important to everyone's well being.
Without delving into the professional literature and sharing details of psychological theories about coping strategies and resiliency, I suggest that the word "coping" refers to the effort (and action) we undertake to tolerate or minimize the impact of stressful events. Some of the strategies used to cope are problem-solving in nature (we do things to alleviate stress) and others are emotional in nature (we feel a certain way to regulate our reactions). How each person copes with a particular circumstance depends on such variables as their personality style, their sense of urgency, and their perception (or the reality) about how much control can be exerted to change the course of events, stabilize the situation and make it better (or at least prevent it from getting worse!).
A great example of what is meant by "coping" can be drawn from a tool that is used by carpenters (and by those of us who were fortunate enough to have experienced "shop class" in high school). A "coping saw" is a type of hand saw that is used to trim moldings or intricate shapes and cutouts, for instance, when creating a wooden jigsaw puzzle or the fancy decorative work on pieces of furniture. Recognizing and responding to the special needs of students with LD in each of their academic classes, keeping open lines of communication between home and school, and monitoring the social and emotional pulse of relationships that are often triggers for problems in school and at home are all important factors that contribute to the coping styles that parents develop. Combine the intricacies of school and home with the personalities of each of the players (parents, students and educators), and it is easy to see how critical it is for parents to develop effective ways to cope with the stressors and demands of nurturing their children with LD.
How Am I Doing?
Below is a short list of coping behaviors that has been extracted from studies of coping styles and from anecdotal reports by parents and others. It is intended to help you reflect upon your coping behaviors and hopefully benefit from the positive (and negative) attributes and behaviors that have been reported by others.
Coping Behaviors: Thinking Negatively
- Deny the problem ("It's just a matter of time before he'll grow out of it...")
- Hide ("I know, but I am so embarrassed that... ")
- Become overwhelmed ("I feel helpless because...")
- Blame yourself ("I feel so guilty; if only I had...")
- Blame others ("If only his teacher had...")
- Panic ("We need to change everything right now...")
- Worry ("I can't help thinking that...")
Coping Behaviors: Thinking Positively
- Listen carefully and ask for clarification ("Are you telling me that...")
- Take good notes ("When last we spoke, we agreed that...")
- Seek information ("What I need to know is...")
- Focus on the problem ("My specific concern is about...")
- Seek social support ("Who can I turn to when I need to talk about...")
- Become a self-advocate ("What I need you to provide for my child is...")
- Become an advocate for change ("The system needs to adjust by...")
- Reduce tension ("It feels good just to...")
- Focus on the positive ("One good thing is that...")
- Seek professional guidance ("With her help, I realized that...")
- Share your wisdom ("What I now know is...")
- Survival Tips for Parents
This is a down-to-earth list of things parents can do to help them juggle the day-to-day responsibilities, work and special needs of children with learning disabilities.
Sheldon H. Horowitz, Ed.D. is the Director of LD Resources & Essential Information at the National Center for Learning Disabilities.