Research studies have show that one of the most important ways to ensure life success and satisfaction for individuals with LD is by having a solid support system and knowing how to effectively use it. Here are four things to keep in mind as you teach your child to develop his or her own support system.
Don’t try to be the “whole enchilada.”
Don Trimmer, PhD, principal at Evergreen Elementary School in Diamond Bar, CA, has worked to incorporate life skills into the school curriculum. “When a child is young, a parent can pretty much meet all his or her needs,” says Trimmer. You are the reliable expert in those early years—whether it’s providing the Band-Aid and kiss that make everything better, teaching how to hold a pencil the right way, or smoothing over troubles with grade-school friends.
But as your child gets older, life becomes more complex. You may have known how to handle it when your six-year-old was called a name, says Trimmer. But what about when your freshman announces that all her friends hate her and she doesn’t know why? And, those math times tables may have been a snap, but what happens when your child moves on to trig tables? Are you comfortable explaining the difference between a sine and cosine or how to solve a quadratic formula?
As difficult as it is for us to let go, we need to help our children develop their own support systems and sense of responsibility. “We need to be involved, but as our children get older, we cannot always be there,” says Trimmer. He says that one way to put this into perspective is to ask yourself, how many days do I go without assistance from others? It’s okay to rely on other people—we can’t be experts at all things. As adults, we need to know what we can and cannot do and then find people who can help us when we falter. The same is true for our kids.
Teach how to ask for—and offer—help.
Of course, it’s not always easy to ask for help. But learning how to do so is very important. Paul J. Gerber, PhD, professor in the department of Special Education and Disability Policy at the Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA, says that kids, especially those with LD, may get used to automatically being helped at school, but it won’t always be that way throughout life. That’s why they need to learn how to be self-advocates.
“Although learning disabilities are often thought of as being centered on academics,” says Gerber, “kids may also struggle with social skills, including those involved in asking for help and reciprocating.” You can model this at home by asking for help when you need it—to clean out the gutters, make a meal, or even get tech advice from your child—then offering to do the same for another family member. It’s important for your child to see that everyone needs help.
Model being a good support person, too, by volunteering at a shelter, walking the neighbors' dog while they’re out of town, or taking meals to a sick family member.
Encourage outside connections.
As kids get older, outside connections—those beyond the immediate family—become increasingly important, not just because you can’t do it all, but because your kids won’t always want to take your lead, says researcher Roberta J. Goldberg, PhD, of the Frostig Center, a nonprofit in Pasadena, CA, that specializes in working with children who have LD. “The trick is to get them to have connections with other support people,” she says. “Seek out a person to be a mentor or helper.” This might be a tutor, teacher, someone who shares an interest with your child, or a professional who has a special knowledge about your child’s challenges. Many families may have access to support groups through religious organizations or counselors in the community.
Also help your children get involved in some kind of activity, especially as they near high school, says Trimmer. “This will not only broaden their circle of friends, but will also provide a built-in peer support group. The natural tendency is for kids to pull away from parents. Once kids have support available, parents need to gracefully let go.” The tighter you hold on, the harder it is for both you and your child.
Know that kids will usually find something to get interested in. Even online gaming and social networking can provide an invaluable source of connection, although it’s likely quite different than what you’re accustomed to and can be a little scary for parents. Strong friendships can emerge from these connections, but of course face-to-face connections still offer big advantages.
Gerber recommends organized groups like the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, or Junior Achievement, programs where leaders might be more sensitive to kids with special challenges and be more able to deliver informed support. He has greater concerns about programs such as Little League or soccer teams, where volunteer coaches may mean well but not be as sensitive to special needs and know little more than the simple art of encouragement.
Don’t forget to lean on your extended family for support as well. Maybe there’s a nearby cousin who enjoys cooking with your child or an aunt who takes your kids to baseball games from time to time. These aren’t simply frivolous connections. They may be people your child can turn to for guidance when they hit the age of loosening apron strings. And, don’t forget that outside support can offer a welcome bonus: needed respite for you, as well.