Coping with a child's learning disability (LD) is stressful for any parent, and the last thing you need is another demand on your time and energy. But avoiding talking about your child's LD can send a message to well-meaning family members that you're hiding something or feeling ashamed, embarrassed, or guilty.
How will family members take the news? Some will accept the problem and offer support right away. Telling the "secret" often produces great relief for everyone involved. And since learning disabilities are often inherited, it may even help other family members understand the reasons they may have had problems when they were in school. Others may disagree or deny there's a problem at all. And some may even blame you or your child.
How you approach family members depends both on their current understanding of learning disabilities, and on their willingness to accept that your child has LD. Regardless of the approach you take to informing family members, there are many reasons why educating your family about LD can help your child and you personally:
- To break down barriers that separate families because of misinformation or misunderstanding.
- To provide a common knowledge of how your child learns "his strengths, as well as challenges" and why he acts as he does.
- To exchange harmful labels (eg., dumb, lazy, inattentive) for terms that describe his talents and help to build self-esteem (eg., creative thinker, star athlete, skilled at math).
- To help set realistic expectations for your child.
- To reduce feelings of isolation for you and your child.
- To expand the home support system for you and your child.
Find Your Allies
Begin by talking to those in your family who understand and accept the situation. Together, you can decide how to work with resistant relatives. You and your child can depend on these "allies" to support you and reinforce the message with other family members.
Video: The Importance of Family Support
A mom talks about her family’s dynamics and how they work together to support those with LD. Watch now >
Made possible by a grant from the Oak Foundation.
Keep information simple, and avoid using educational jargon. Help family members identify some strategies to help your child succeed in his interactions with them.
Remember how overwhelming even basic information was when you first began learning about learning disabilities? Give everyone a chance to think about what you've shared. It won't be easy if the person is in denial, doesn't believe or accept what you're saying. Then you'll need lots of patience and an outside support system to get you through the process.
For most of the family, education isn't something that can be done effectively in one talk. As questions arise, take advantage of the opportunity to answer thoughtfully. Some people may want to learn more on their own, so be ready to provide resources for them, such as articles, educational programs, and support groups.
Talk with Siblings
Talking to the brother or sister of your child with LD may be the hardest job of all. Siblings often feel jealous of all the extra attention a child with LD needs, such as extra help on homework, tutoring, time spent at school, and may be quick to express anger or make comments that can hurt. Parents have to balance the demands of all their children, not just those with special needs.
When speaking to a sibling, consider the age of the child, use language that's easy to understand, and speak positively and factually. Reassure all your children that each one is special and loved and find ways to show them you mean what you say. The structure and positive discipline that help kids with LD function better can benefit all kids in the family. So have routines apply to everyone, and that way no one will feel singled out or left out!
Aiming for Acceptance
While it's important to educate family members about your child's LD as soon as you comfortably can, do it on your own timetable when it feels right for you.
Communicating with your family about LD is an ongoing process. It will take time for each family member to feel comfortable in a new role with your child. Don't be discouraged if some never fully understand his LD. As long as they give him their love, acceptance, and attention, he'll feel special. In time, each person can find positive ways to support and interact with him.
Ann Christen is a licensed marriage, family, and child counselor with extensive clinical experience working with children and families affected by learning difficulties, focusing particularly in familial issues. She is the mother of three grown daughters, two of whom have LD and the third who is severely disabled.
Kristin Stanberry is a writer and editor specializing in parenting, education, and consumer health/wellness issues. Her areas of expertise include learning disabilities and AD/HD, topics which she wrote about extensively for Schwab Learning and GreatSchools© 2008 GreatSchools Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally created by Schwab Learning, formerly a program of the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation. Adapted with permission of Schwab Learning.