By: Connie Boutet, Ph.D., Psychologist Candidate
Cynthia Jordan, Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist
Jan Thiessen, B.A., Executive Director, LDA Manitoba
As a parent or caregiver of a child with a learning disability (LD) or attention disorder (ADD), increasing your own knowledge of ADD and LD can facilitate your understanding and support of your child’s experiences both at home and at school. Helping your child to better understand attentional and learning difficulties will assist in the development of self-esteem and the learning of coping strategies in the academic environment, as well as in family and peer relationships. The following suggestions are offered as guidelines to help you talk to your child about attention deficit and learning disabilities.
1. Call it what is is. Don’t be afraid of “labeling” the child. It is important for your child to have appropriate and accurate words to describe his or her difficulties to aid in self-understanding and in discussing these difficulties with other people. Often, children have already labeled themselves with such negative terms as “stupid” or “retarded.” More accurate descriptors such as “attention deficit disorder” and “learning disability” are less likely to result in negative perceptions by your child and others. Give your child the “material” to explain to others: “I have a reading disability and it will take me a bit longer to learn to read, but I will.”
2. Don’t worry that your child will use the ADHD/LD as an excuse not to work. Often parents are concerned that, once diagnosed and given information about the disability, the child will use this as an excuse for not working harder at school. A similar concern has been expressed related to the child’s relying on stimulant medication to assist with attentional problems in the classroom. Your child needs to be told clearly what the medication is intended to do (i.e., help with attention and concentration) and, importantly, what he or she needs to do (i.e., that she or he will need to work harder to compensate for areas of difficulty). Without accurate information, children often underachieve due to frustration, repeated failures, or being labeled as “lazy” or disobedient.
3. Be open and accepting of your child’s difficulties. Your attitude toward your child’s problems clearly will impact self-image and self-esteem. If you treat the ADHD/LD as a shameful secret, your child may internalize this negative attitude. Be open and frank about the disability when discussing it with family, friends, and other significant people in your child’s life. If you ignore the problem or overreact to it, your child could react in the same way. It is often a painful and difficult process for parents to be accepting. It is also essential to your child.
4. Talk about individual strengths and weaknesses. It is important for your child to understand that everyone has things at which they excel and other things at which they must work harder. Reference to significant persons in the child’s life might be helpful here, e.g., “Daddy’s really good on the computer but he has to work hard to fix things around the house.” ” You’re really good at fixing things but you have trouble with math.” Helping your child identify his or her strengths will promote self-esteem. Emphasizing these strengths will also be helpful to develop coping strategies to accomodate the child’s weaker areas.
5. Emphasize the physiological nature of ADD/LD. Research has consistently emphasized the physiological basis of Attention Deficit Disorder and certain types of learning disabilities. It is not a flaw of the child’s character or the result of inferior parenting. It is like being born with blue eyes or brown eyes, curly hair or straight hair. Similarly, the use of medication is not a reflection of one’s failure to persevere or to work harder: we would not expect a diabetic to metabolize starches more effectively through persuasion and not require medication. No one is perfect. It would be a dull world if everyone was the same.
6. Let the child know that ADHD/LD is a common problem. It is important that your child know that he or she is not the only one who has this difficulty. There are very likely other children at your child’s school who are taking medication or who require special help with their work. There may even be other children in your child’s classroom who experience similar problems. As ADD/ADHD and LD often run in families, your child may also have a relative who experienced similar difficulties at school, e.g., a parent, an aunt or uncle, or an older sibling.
7. Explain what ADHD/LD is and what it is not. In comparing themselves to their peers, some children conclude that the reason they are having difficulty is because they are not as smart as other kids. It is important to explain that attention problems and learning disabilities have nothing to do with intelligence. It is a matter of learning differently, or learning styles, and needing more time and hard work to process certain types of information and complete certain tasks, e.g., reading and writing. Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison are cases in point.
8. The earlier the better. Children are very sensitive to differences between themselves and their same-age peers. Once in school, others may call attention to real and perceived differences and tease the child about them. The sooner you can provide accurate and supportive explanations for why the child is struggling in some areas, the less likelihood your child will develop negative misconceptions about him or herself (e.g., “I’m not as smart as the rest of my class”).
9. Set aside a special time to discuss these issues. When you’re planning to have this discussion with your child, ensure that you have the child’s complete attention and that he or she is in a receptive mood. Endeavor to make this discussion interactive rather than using a lecture format: provide information in little bits so as not to overwhelm the child’s ability to process and integrate the information; encourage your child to ask questions; and be prepared to listen to your child’s concerns and address them as supportively as you can.
10. Information must be age-appropriate. When deciding what to tell your child, be sensitive to the child’s developmental level and emotional maturity. Only give as much information as you believe he or she can handle at this age. Use words and phrases that the child can understand and pronounce. As your child matures, he or she will be ready for additional information and discussion. Understanding of these issues will build gradually over the years. Ask questions about the child’s learning and social experiences to use as your guideline and to adjust your information with his or her understanding.
11. Use lots of comparisons and examples with which the child can identify. Depending on your child’s age and maturity, his or her understanding may be enhanced through the use of concrete examples and analogies. e.g.,”Your friend, Brian, needs glasses to help his eyes see better. You need medication to help your brain pay attention better.” “Its like a T.V. that keeps switching channels.” “Some babies learn to walk earlier than others. They walk when they are ready. Some children read earlier than others. You need more time, but you will learn to read.”
12. Ensure that your child has other people s/he can talk to. Encourage your child to talk to his or her doctor, teacher, or mental health professional about any questions or concerns. Sometimes it is easier for children to express their feelings to someone outside of the family.
13. Be prepared for specific questions that might come up. e.g., How did I get ADD/LD? Am I the only one who has it? Why do I have to take medication for it? Will I always have trouble in school? Will I be able to read better someday? Resource materials and consultation with knowledgable professionals will help you prepare appropriate answers to these and other likely questions.
14. Obtain pamphlets, books, and videotapes on ADHD and LD that you can share with your child. The Learning Disabilities Associations often have a resource library list which can help you identify age-appropriate materials to share with your child. Reading books and watching videos together will help you open up discussion of these important issues and will assist in answering your child’s questions. Contact your local Learning Disabilities Association for more information.
Smith, Sally, No Easy Answers, Bantam Books, Revised Edition 1995.
Rowe, Jane, Yours by Choice, Routledge & Kegan Paul, Revised Edition 1982
Fowler, Mary, Maybe You Know My Kid, 2nd edition Birch Lane Press 1994
Stern, Judith, “Helping Children Understand their Attention and Learning Problems”, speech given at CH.A.A.D. 6th Annual Conference, October, 1994.
“Newslines” Fall, 1995
Learning Disabilities Association of Manitoba
60 Maryland Street, Winnipeg, Manitoba, CANADA R3G 1K7
(204)774-1821 Fax: (204)788-4090
Original articles from LDA Manitoba may be reprinted or copied without permission. Reference to LDA Manitoba and the author(s) would be appreciated.