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Tama Lane, Psy.D.: 6 Ways to Help Children Navigate the Social and Emotional Effects of Learning Disorders

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By Tama Lane, Psy.D.

"Why can't my child simply do homework without arguing? He always complains and becomes stressed out. It is a constant battle and I don't know what to do." Does this sound familiar? As children are settling into their fall schedules and adjusting to a new school year, these sentiments may become a regular occurrence for many parents. While it is true that some adolescents seem eager to learn and complete assignments with minimal struggles, for those with learning disabilities, it can be extremely difficult and emotionally distressing. For an adolescent with a learning disability, the experience of sitting down to do a homework assignment or project is similar to a person with a fear of flying as they approach the airport.

As you may or may not know as a parent or educator, the emotional and social world for these children is rife with confusing emotions that are not always easy to navigate. Children and adolescents should not be defined by their disabilities. However, when they are repeatedly exposed to failure experiences, it chisels away their global sense of competence and personal agency. Whether socially or academically, real or perceived, reduced competence can result in emotional confusion, self-doubt, feeling misunderstood, sadness, and anxiety. It is not surprising that research shows adolescents with learning disabilities are at a higher risk than their peers for emotional disturbance1, substance abuse2, anxiety3, low self-esteem4, conduct problems6, antisocial behavior6, and truancy7.

Promoting wellness in children and adolescents requires attention and intervention in both educational and emotional arenas. While willpower and wishing away will not cure any disability, parents can help develop the emotional and social skills needed to meet and overcome these challenges. What can parents, educators, and caregivers do for children with learning disabilities to promote emotional and psychological well-being?

Recognize stress and improve the child's ability to manage stress. Anxiety is not necessarily a bad thing. Anxiety can be protective as it involves anticipating future danger and confrontation with the same threat8. When anxiety transitions to an extreme or irrational state, it can result in emotional distress and impede everyday functioning. In certain academic or social situations, children with learning disabilities might experience higher levels of anxiety than their peers, feeling that events are beyond their control. Often teen patients ask, "Why do I freak out?" "I don't understand why I get so scared and feel stuck." Unfortunately we do not possess the ability to simply "turn off" negative emotions or physical responses to anxiety provoking situations or events.

Some of the emotional and physical signs of anxiety include worry or anticipating the worst, restlessness, irritability, difficulty concentrating, increased heart palpitations, sweating, muscle tension, tremors and twitches, shallow breathing, and dizziness or nausea. Help your child use words to identify and describe stress. Parents or caregivers can both normalize feelings of inadequacy and fear of failure, but also promote the idea that being different does not mean inferior.

Use task management and humor to deal with challenges. Parents can share their own difficulties/struggles in academic or social areas and give them useful coping strategies. How they interpret their experiences can be critical. Parents or caregivers can ask children to break down the scenarios and discuss how feelings of stress and frustration can be avoided and approached differently. For instance, if your child struggles with writing, the written assignment can be broken down into smaller components. It is much easier to write paragraphs in increments as opposed to a full paper in one sitting. Also, take breaks during anxiety-provoking tasks. Lastly, use humor as a tension relief. Laughter is a great natural technique for reducing the physical signs and aiding in muscle relaxation.

Promote active listening and communication exchange within the family. Children with learning disabilities face many challenges and often need outlets to voice their everyday struggles. Listening with intent to both verbal and non-verbal communication and presenting and receiving information can be challenging for both child and parent. However, fostering communication within the family unit creates a safe and open environment for the adolescent to identify and express frustration, anger, fear, and disappointment.

Parents and caregivers can encourage and nurture healthy communication activities. Guidelines for good listening activities might involve trying to understand the other person's point of view through role-play. Essentially, place yourself in the other person's shoes, think about how they would feel, and act it out. Secondly, ask your child to describe situations or role-play scenarios that evoke negative feelings (e.g., stress, feeling isolated from peers, teasing, etc.). Equally challenging, if not harder, is learning to give feedback and receive constructive criticism non-defensively. For children and adolescents, perceived negative judgments can reinforce feelings of inadequacy. Therefore, delivery of the message should be conveyed in a way that identifies strengths while offering room for improvement or growth.

Help the child improve self-esteem and self-image. More so in formative years, children and adolescents compare themselves with their peers in areas related to academics, athletic prowess, physical appearance, and even the quantity of friends within his or her social network. Although a child may demonstrate weakness in one area, the self-judgments tend to be global in nature. However, weakness in a particular area does mean he or she does not possess multiple strengths in other areas. Parents can use reinforcement to focus on and nurture talents in areas where their child excels. Providing a rich environment in encouragement and reinforcement will improve a child's global sense of self. Additionally, be aware of self-critical words your child may use, such as, "I'm stupid, "dumb," I will never be able to do this," or "there is something wrong with my brain." These negative evaluations and self-destructive thinking reinforces poor self-images and abilities.

Combat the Personal Fable in support groups. A personal fable is the adolescent's belief that his or her experiences are unique, while believing no one can relate to their personal experience. Teens with learning disabilities might feel that he or she is the only one facing this challenge, essentially feeling alone, which can exacerbate sadness. Finding support groups in your community and being with others, within their age range, will allow them to engage with teens with shared experiences and similar problems. Support groups also provide an opportunity to develop and nurture friendships.

Be aware and take notice of behavior patterns and fluctuations in mood. Knowing that learning disabilities can affect a child's emotional internal world, parents and/or caregivers should look out for symptoms of depression. Some of these symptoms include sadness, diminished interest or pleasure in activities (anhedonia), insomnia or hypersomnia, fatigue or loss of energy, poor concentration and poor appetite. In teens, depression might manifest differently. Be aware of sadness or hopelessness, irritability, anger, hostility, withdrawal from friends or family, restlessness and agitation, feelings of worthlessness and guilt, changes in eating and sleeping habits, acting out, truancy, lack of enthusiasm and motivation, substance abuse, thoughts of death or suicide. Depressive symptoms can be serious and should never be taken lightly. If any persistent symptoms are noticed in your child, contact a mental health professional for consultation.

Helping children navigate the emotional and social effects of learning disorders is not insurmountable. With practice and open dialogue, you can achieve great results over time.

1Martinez, R. S., & Semrud-Clikeman, M. (2004). Emotional Adjustment and School Functioning of Young Adolescents with Multiple Versus Single Learning Disabilities. Journal Of Learning Disabilities, 37(5), 411-420.

2Holmberg, M.B. (1985). Longitudinal studies of drug abuse in a fifteen year old population: I. Drug career. Act Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 71, 67-79.

3Tsovili, T. D. (2004). The relationship between language teachers' attitudes and the state-trait anxiety of adolescents with dyslexia. Journal Of Research In Reading, 27(1), 69-86.

4Alexander-Passe, N. (2006). How dyslexic teenagers cope: an investigation of self-esteem, coping and depression. Dyslexia, 12(4), 256-275.

5Heiervang, E., Stevenson, J., Lund, A., & Hugdahl, K. (2001). Behaviour problems in children with dyslexia. Nordic Journal Of Psychiatry, 55(4), 251-256.

6Dyslexia and criminal offenders. (1996). Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 40(2), 100.

7Svensson, I., Lundberg, I., & Jacobson, C. (2001). The prevalence of reading and spelling difficulties among inmates of institutions for compulsory care of juvenile delinquents. Dyslexia: An international Journal, 7(2), 62-76.

8Foa, E. B., Andrews, L. W. (2006). If your adolescent has an anxiety disorder: An essential resource for Parents. New York: Oxford University Press.

Tama Lane, Psy.D., is the founder and Director of New York Psychotherapy and Neuropsychology Group, where she provides psychological services for individuals presenting with a range of psychopathology, including trauma and learning disorders. To learn more about Dr. Lane, visit her at redroom.com.