When a child is born, it is usually a time of joy for the whole family. How new parents respond to this new little person is influenced by many factors. Some feelings revolve around how comfortable parents are in taking care of the child, whether the child was wanted, and whether the child is welcomed into an intact family. The personality of the infant as defined by Chess and Thomas is also a factor. Some are easy, contented babies, others may be fussy.
Tactilely defensive babies, who do not want to be held, may cause the mother to question her mothering abilities. It may seem to her that her baby is rejecting her. At this point, the nature versus nurture concept comes into play since different sets of parents will respond differently to the child’s behavior. The differences in those responses can have significant effects on the ultimate well-being of the child. But what happens when the child has a learning disability?
Parenting from Birth
Children are taught love, respect for others, what kinds of responses are tolerated, and how to behave in the first years of life from people who are supposed to love them the most. These are all givens, and most of us are aware of the possible consequences of each. Parenting, whether or not there is a disability present, is the critical component in the life of any child.
When a learning disability is diagnosed
When one gives birth or adopts a child with learning disabilities, the givens do not change, but they become more intensified. No parent of a child with learning disabilities has forgotten the moment when they were told their child has a learning disability. It is usually described as a blow to the stomach. It is usually accompanied by a period of mourning. Some families respond as if it were the death of a dream.
In a psychologically healthy family, the mourning period evolves into an active seeking of answers, but not all families are psychologically healthy. The results in the child and adolescent can range from outright depression, anorexia or bulimia to nearly total dependency.
The healthy family accepts the disability as just a small part of an otherwise terrific kid. They take care to make sure the child knows that 90% works just fine, but there is a little part that keeps getting in the way of what the child wants to accomplish. That does not mean that either parent or child will not experience repeated pain and lack of understanding. Just last week, a 24-year-old student of mine experienced discrimination from someone who surely should know better. The student called home in frustration and the mother’s response was, “It just doesn’t stop, does it?” There is sadness in that response and the wise clinician will realize and accept that there is always a degree of sadness present, even in a well-adjusted, functioning, successful person.
Early School Years
During the elementary school years, parents often hear from their child’s teachers that the child has no friends that the child cannot get along and is often involved in fights. The child is often clumsy, gets only a few Valentines, and is chosen last for team sports. There are few, if any invitations to birthday parties. The child knows how others feel but neither the child nor the parents know what to do about it.
The wise family involves the child in activities that have the potential for success. At early ages it may be scouts, community resources such as canoeing, drama classes, environmental causes, ballet, horseback riding, the church or synagogue. Parents need to keep trying until they find something their child can do well. People feel safe interacting with those whose beliefs mirror their own or with those who are also learning a new skill. The activity is not important, as long as the child becomes more experienced at a skill than are his or her peers. Parents need to find activities that set their child apart in positive ways rather than in the negative ways the child experiences educationally. Enlist the teacher’s aid in bringing to the class your child’s knowledge of the skill. Fathers may prefer a Little League star to some other sport, but many of our children (with learning disabilities) are terrific at track or swimming and not proficient at team sports. Maybe they like to read, work with their hands, or build things. It doesn’t matter what they are good at, as long as we find something. Everyone needs to feel good about something.
Caregivers need to identify what skills children will need in everyday life and begin to teach them at an early age. It is only when one is surprised by something that a person with learning disabilities does not know that one begins to realize how many things we do not teach that they need to know. These are simple things that we assume are learned by watching others as children grow, so we simply do not think about teaching such things. I thought that I had covered all the bases until my adult daughter began writing. It was then I learned she did not know that Room 214 meant that it was room 14 on the second floor, or that when going up or down stairs one keeps to the right. While academic areas can be most troublesome, they are not what set us apart socially.
What sets us apart socially is how we act. Children have to be taught how to maintain eye contact when someone is speaking and to wait until another is finished before saying something ourselves. The importance of a firm handshake, to acknowledge someone who walks into the room…these are not behaviors we often think to tech, yet they are critical. The old adage that “most jobs are won or lost at the drinking fountain” is a true one.
However, most parents have social skills. What makes educators think that the student will learn social skills in a regular education class when they haven’t learned from their parents? In other words, class placement is not going to cure social skills problems; a conscious effort must be made to teach them, by parents if possible or by a therapist when necessary, and always by a teacher.
A major problem for parents is that we are used to our children and to their behaviors, so we may ignore behaviors we would not tolerate in another child. Parents may simply give up because they don’t know what to do to change things. Basically, parents must learn to react to inappropriate behavior immediately, to tell the child what was wrong about a given behavior, and to suggest an alternative.
Parents often do not realize that many of our children and adolescents do not understand facial expressions and body language. I remember my own son coming into the kitchen when he was 4 years old and asking, “Mom, are you mad at me?” I replied, “No, honey.” When he asked me the second time, I began to wonder if he had done something I didn’t know about. By the fourth time he asked, I was mad.
In addition, as parents, teachers, or other professions, we go to great effort to let others know how we are really feeling. If we had a disagreement with a co-worker, or if we are mad at the plumber, we may slam things around the kitchen while telling those around us, that we are just fine. In reality, these are perfect opportunities to teach facial expressions and tonal variation in speech. I can’t remember the number of times I have had a student with learning disabilities tell me they didn’t know such things had meaning.
This lack of understanding makes for a very confusing world; it is a world of measured chaos. With very little faith in our own perceptions, knowledge, and judgment, they may quickly assume that someone else is right and that they are wrong. they may become followers when in reality; it is they who should be leading. Over and over I have seen people with learning disabilities, even as adults, accept someone else’s idea, which has very questionable value, rather than pursue their own. Their self-esteem is so low that they just assume they are less likely to be correct. I have heard them express their unsureness of their own perceptions or ideas and so they may easily be manipulated by others.
Young adults with learning disabilities tell me that as adolescents their lives were turbulent. They felt inadequate and very alone. Some weren’t sure where they were in space so they always wore a jacket, even in summer. It gave them a sense of personal space. They often tried drugs to escape and to give them acceptance in a social group. Then they came down, the problems were still there. Some will have sex with dates in order to gain social standing with the date and because it is one thing they think they can do well. Many don’t know how to make small talk, let alone hold a conversation. They feel that they don’t fit in, that they are stupid. What got most teens out of trouble was having someone, such as an older person with learning disabilities who had similar experiences and could relate as only one who has been there can do.
They often forget to do their homework, leave it at home, or decide that they can’t do it well and will fail anyway, so why attempt it. They are occasionally surprised by exams that had been announced in class. These teenagers know they need structure, consistency, and organization more than the average adolescent. We can teach them to use a color-coded appointment book for important dates, appointments, and assignments.
Tips for Success
Set aside time as a family
As parents, we can set aside time to be a family, such as sitting down at dinner together everyday. We must set rules and stick to them. We cannot waver from them or show favoritism. As my daughter reminds me: “don’t allow my brother to stay out until midnight at 16 and expect me to be home by 11 o’clock at the same age. Don’t give me a 10 o’clock curfew and then not let me go out at 9 o’clock. Parents may need to organize their lives before they can help their teenage children. Rules apply to adults as well as their children. Don’t expect respect from your children, if you don’t respect them. Parents also have to remember that it is more important to have an organized life than it is to have an organized room.
Try to be fair
Be sure your children are as similar to other children as they can be. Even if you can afford six pairs of no-name jeans, but only two popular brand, buy the popular brands. This applies to shoes also and scrimp on other things. Eat hot dogs and macaroni but be sure that your teenager looks like everyone else. Be sure your child gets a driver’s license at 16, even if you know that your child has problems with depth perception or spatial relationships. It may even be necessary to send your teenager to a driving school or to find someone outside of the family to be the driving teacher. Teach teenagers to drive to important places before an actual event. Practicing the route affords time to pick out landmarks and predict the time needed to get to a given destination.
Teenagers need to feel successful in some aspects of life. We must help them to get involved in things they feel good about, such as scouts, spear fishing, rock climbing, rappelling, or dirt bike racing, even if their choices are things we are fearful of or dislike. Teach your teenager how to hold a conversation, listen actively, maintain eye contact, and ask questions. It is important to tell children when they do something inappropriate. Ignoring the behavior will not extinguish it.
Be a safe place for your child
Parents need to understand that they are the safest people in a teen’s life. They may blow up at their parents and take things out on their parents because they have difficulty expressing frustration and rage, but they also trust their parents. Parents also need to understand that these actions are the keys to independence.
It is important for parents to see their child as a whole person, not just a person with learning disabilities. Help them to develop the same behaviors you expect from your other children. Don’t raise children with learning disabilities as handicapped.
Involve your children in decision-making.
This can be anything from deciding which pizza toppings to order to choosing a vacation route. Allow them to make the small decisions so they will be prepared to make the big decisions in life. These activities help to build self-esteem and may help with making future career choices.
Never let a disability become an excuse for not trying
Allow your child to try and even fail at times. That is what life is like. Teach or find someone to teach your teen how to prepare food, basic car maintenance, take phone messages, and balance a checkbook. Systematically teach your child the skills you find necessary for everyday living. Teach your child the rules of polite behavior, such as a strong handshake, the importance of eye contact, and to wait until another has stopped before speaking. It is important to teach good grooming. Help your teen choose a hairstyle that is easy to manage. Help establish a color-coordinated wardrobe and then teach the essentials of caring for the clothes.
Share your feelings
Telling your children, “I am angry, I am worried, I am happy” makes them understand how faces and bodies look when someone feels a certain way. Help your child to learn organizational skills. By starting early with small tasks like sorting the silverware and setting out clothes for the next day before going to bed will make larger tasks easier to manage. As your child’s organizational skills increase, show how a calendar can be used for planning. Teach time management so he/she can learn to determine the amount of time needed to get ready for school or a date. Help your child develop a weekly schedule. Times for different activities can be color-coded, such as green = study time; blue = TV, red = school, etc.
Encourage your teen to volunteer at a nursing home, your church or synagogue or with an environmental group. These are non-threatening activities and help develop self-esteem and good social skills. Subscribe to age-related magazines that will keep your child updated on current clothing, movies, music, etc. Many magazines are available on tape from Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic.
Explore after high school options
If your child wants to go to college, start to investigate college programs during the freshman year in high school. It will take time and good programs fill early. If your child has chosen a vocation instead, consider having a career counselor help with some of the decisions. On-the-job training will work for some programs. Others may require some post secondary training.
Encourage understanding of the disability
Talking to your teen such as, “You have a problem with reading, but we can get books on tape, and you are great with your hands.” The more you accept that learning disabilities are just a small part of a person, the more the person can accept him/herself.
It is your responsibility to keep yourself informed. The more you know, the more effectively you can help your child.
Try not to limit your child
Don’t use the disability as a reason for not entering a profession or trying to obtain a job. More and more opportunities are opening up for persons with learning disabilities. Keep copies of all school and psychological reports. They may be needed to get services for your child later.
Author: Barbara Cordoni