Dealing with LDs: Accepting that your child has a Learning Disability
This is the second of a series of four articles on Learning Disability in children and adolescents.
By Dr Meghna Singhal
Read the first article 'Does your child have a Learning Disability' here.
Broadly speaking, parents of children diagnosed with a Learning Disability (LD) fall into 3 categories:
- Those who struggle with the challenges that come with having a child with LD and who report to be most in need of help (the ‘strugglers’)
- Those who are conflicted about their ability to manage the needs of their child with LD (the ‘conflicted’)
- Those who are optimistic about their family’s journey with LD issues but continue to require guidance and information (the ‘optimistic’)
Let us see how you, as a parent of a child with LD, can turn from being one of the strugglers or conflicted to one of the optimistic.
Stages of Acceptance
Being told that your child has an LD can come as a shock to you as a parent. Receiving this diagnosis can leave you feeling angry, anxious, discouraged and hopeless. You may feel despair at the disparity between your desires for your child and the disability that impacts not only his learning but also his relationships and his very identity. You may feel grief, sadness or shame. You may even ask ‘why me’ and conclude that you are being punished for some past sins.
It is normal to pass through stages of adjustment to your child’s diagnosis. The first stage is usually that of denial, wherein you may be feel that somehow an error has been made in the assessment. This may lead you to ‘shop for a cure’ or propose actions in an attempt to change the reality.
The second stage of adjustment is usually that of anger, which may be expressed in the form of rage or passively. by feeling guilty. In the third stage, you may become resigned to the fact that your child has an LD. Feelings of hopelessness, shame and anxiety, stemming from an overwhelming sense of responsibility, could ensue. For a few parents, hiding their child from and avoiding social situations may be a sign that they have begun to accept the fact that their child has a disability. The last stage is that of acceptance, meaning that you are able to understand and appreciate your child and make efforts towards obtaining appropriate interventions and accommodations for her.
Usually the ‘strugglers’ take a longer time to accept their child’s diagnosis. However, the situation becomes complicated when the father and mother are at different stages of adjustment, and experience conflicting emotions at the same time (e.g. blame versus denial; guilt versus anger). This often leads to a delay in their reaching out for help and in timely assessment and intervention.
“Before I learnt of my child’s dyslexia, I spent years hoping for some magic. I would wake up each morning hoping that my boy had magically transformed into a child that learned like all his classmates. My husband and I would argue daily about whether or not he had dyslexia. He would keep saying “If only he would focus, he could learn.” But acceptance for him finally came a few years later when he said “I think he has dyslexia. Learning might always be a struggle for him.”
Fathima, mother of a 10-year old who was diagnosed as having dyslexia
Even after parents find the resources and means to help their child deal with the disability, other challenges can lead to setbacks in their adjustment and acceptance. One of the main challenges that parents often struggle with is the lack of understanding and awareness of LD in India. This often leads to a negative attitude among friends and strangers or poorly informed educators. Encountering these negative attitudes can make parents regress to earlier stages of grief.
However, it is important to spend time grieving. It is important to express your anger and despair. If you don’t express how you feel, your feelings might get in the way of your helping your child. If you can take care of your feelings, you can help your struggling child more easily. It’s not that her disability will stop bothering you. But dealing with your grief will free you from getting overwhelmed by your feelings and your feelings getting in the way of your helping your child with her learning issues.
“It reminds me of a video of Sadhguru’s I watched on Facebook. He was talking about these conjoined twins – how when one twin fell, the other one would fall too. So a surgeon separated them. Now if one twin falls, the other one can help pick her up. Sadhguru said that being a parent is like being conjoined to our children. We should not be so attached to our children that we feel like we have fallen down when they fall down. We must create a separation, so that we can pick them up when they fall.”
Priya Nayar, parent of a 14-year old diagnosed with dyscalculia
Accepting your child’s LD
In coming to terms with your child’s LD, remember that your goal is to help him help himself. This cannot be achieved by desiring to ‘cure’ the disability but by arming yourself with information, resources and an optimistic attitude.
Here are some ways in which you can learn to accept your child’s LD better:
- Keep things in perspective. Your attitude towards your child’s LD will go a long way in defining his own attitude towards his disability. Your encouragement and support can help ensure that your child gains the confidence and determination to keep going, even in the face of challenges. Your optimism combined with belief in hard work will help him view his LD as a speed bump, rather than a roadblock.
- Don’t get hung up on grades. School grades in India hardly test knowledge; most evaluation methods assess rote learning and speed of writing. Allow your child with LD to progress at her own pace. Emphasise comprehension of concepts and hard work (i.e., the process) instead of grades and performance in exams (i.e., the outcome).
- Arm yourself with information. Find out where you can get your child assessed and certified, what special services, methods of teaching, or assistive technologies your child may require and where to avail of them. Keep abreast of the latest research in LD programmes, therapies, and educational techniques. For example, the Dyslexia Association of India (DAI, Delhi) offers workshops and certificate courses for parents in understanding LD.
- Join a parents’ group. There are many groups on Facebook, such as ‘Smart kids with Learning Disabilities’, which draw parents with similar concerns together. In these groups it is not only information but also emotional and practical support that are shared. The mutual sharing in these groups is an extremely powerful tool to combat isolation, confusion and stress.
- Take care of your other child. If you have another child, he may feel that his sibling with LD gets more attention or preferential treatment, and this could lead to his feeling jealous or neglected. Ensure that you reassure your child that he is loved and reconnect with him for some time every day, giving him your undivided attention (without any agenda or distractions). Also involve him in any special routines for his sibling with LD.
- Practise self-care. It is easy to get overwhelmed by your child’s LD, given that you have to additionally run your household and take care of the rest of your family. It is important for you to get enough sleep, eat regularly, exercise and take a break from it all by pursuing activities you really enjoy, on a regular if not an everyday basis. Focus on your relationship with your partner and keep the lines of communication open. If nothing helps, seek counselling or therapy from a qualified mental health professional, who can teach you ways to cope effectively.
Empowering your child
You can try the following strategies in empowering your child with LD:
- Focus on strengths. Your child is not defined by her LD. Focusing on her strengths, such as the activities in which she excels, will go a long way in helping your child see herself as a person over and beyond her disability. Avoid making your child’s life and schedule revolve around her LD.
- Be realistic. Be honest with your child. Don’t say nothing is wrong. No one knows better than he does that something is wrong. Your child’s problems with literacy and/or numeracy skills are not due to laziness, disobedience or illness. Help your child understand that his difficulties are due to his brain processing information differently from his typically developing peers. That makes it harder for him to recognise, remember and use sequences of symbols. Understanding this will prevent your child from stigmatising himself.
- Don’t encourage a victim mentality. Help your child see what she can do despite the challenges she faces. Help her assume greater degrees of responsibility by, for example, involving her in household chores in an age-appropriate manner. Not encouraging your child to contribute to chores may send the message that she is not capable of helping.
- Build self-esteem. Show your child unconditional love, and acknowledge his good choices. Don’t jump in and take over tasks (such as chores or homework) that your child finds difficult; when you allow him to work through something without your help, you confirm your belief in his capabilities.
- Prevent bullying. Although no child is totally immune to getting bullied, children with disabilities are particularly vulnerable. Help your child develop healthy friendships; even one friend can go a long way in bully-proofing your child. Teach her assertiveness skills, so that if the situation arises, she is able to defend herself by talking assertively, using a respectful but strong and confident tone.
- Help your child take charge of his life. Neither you nor your child can cure the disability, but you can do things that make him feel his best. Could he consider taking up playing a sport, doing yoga or learning martial arts? Could he hone his skills in an activity like art, music, baking, drama or anything that makes him feel good? Encourage him to join a club in his school as a way of feeling good about himself.
In dealing with their child’s LD, it is extremely important that parents take a positive approach. Let your child know that you are on his side. Here are some things said by parents that children told me made all the difference to them:
- “You can learn even though you have a learning difficulty. I know you can because you are bright.”
- “We’ll read together every day, for fun.”
- “We’ll do some spellings every day, but not too many.”
- Dr. Geetika Agarwal, Assistant Teaching Professor, Ball State University (USA) and Associate Director, Stepping Stone Centre (Bangalore)
- “Remember I’m with you in this and I believe you can do well.”
A 20-year longitudinal study that followed children with LD into adulthood identified the following six ‘life success’ attributes:
- Self-awareness: Self-awareness includes knowledge about one’s own strengths, weaknesses, and talents or special abilities. Talk to your child about your strengths and weaknesses and encourage her to talk about hers. Encourage activities and passions within your child’s capabilities, to build competency and enable your child to experience success.
- Proactivity: Proactivity entails self-advocacy (e.g., asking for help when the child doesn’t understand a lesson) and willingness to take responsibility for his choices. Teach your child problem solving skills, first to be tested in safe situations, such as thinking of a solution to a conflict involving scheduling, and then progressing to more complex situations. Encourage your child to make his own decisions.
- Perseverance: Perseverance involves keeping at a task or situation despite challenges and failures. Share success stories of famous personalities (or your own) who kept going despite obstacles. Discuss the rewards that only hard work can bring, and the opportunities missed by giving up. When your child fails despite working hard, keep up the optimism and discuss ways of moving forward.
- Goal setting: Setting realistic goals is an important life skill. So is the ability to adapt and adjust according to limitations. Help your child identify short- and long-term goals, along with the steps required to achieve them. Discuss what she can do when she encounters obstacles. Celebrate when she achieves a goal.
- Support systems: Children with LD require strong support systems. Teach your child interpersonal skills that will help him develop supportive relationships. Role-play situations in which he is required to ask for help from others and have him practice social skills.
- Emotional coping strategies: Help your child express her anger, frustration or feelings of discouragement. Give her the space to talk about her feelings and learn to empathise, rather than jumping in to problem-solve. Helping her connect to her feelings and teaching her how to calm herself will help her regulate her emotions. Encourage your child to identify and involve herself in activities that reduce stress, such as music, sports or baking. Empowering your child to deal with unpleasant feelings or stress will make her better equipped to surmount challenges.
In a Nutshell
- It is normal to pass through stages of adjustment to your child’s diagnosis of LD
- In accepting your child’s LD, arm yourself with information, resources and an optimistic attitude
- Empower your child by focusing on his strengths, helping him build self-esteem, and not encouraging a victim mentality
- Help your child develop the 6 life success attributes: self-awareness, proactivity, perseverance, goal setting, support systems and emotional coping strategies
What you can do right away
- Use a positive approach when discussing learning with your child. Let him know that you are on his side
- Reassure your child that she is loved and reconnect with her for some time every day, giving her your undivided attention
About the expert:
Written by Meghna Singhal, PhD, on 30 July 2019.
Dr. Singhal is a clinical psychologist with a doctorate degree from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia). She is Head of the Content Solutions Zone at ParentCircle.
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