Research Trends: Learning Disabilities and the Family

Parental stress and sibling rivalry are often mentioned as concerns among families raising kids with learning disabilities. Now we can learn what research reveals about LD's impact on the family.

By Marshall Raskind, Ph.D. , Malka Margalit, Ph.D.

What does research tell us about children with learning and attention difficulties, and their relationships with their families? In this summary of the research, Marshall Raskind, Ph.D., and Malka Margalit, Ph.D. share their expert perspective in practical terms for parents like you.

Learning disabilities (LD) not only affect the individual with the disability, but can also have a substantial impact on other members of his family, and the family as a whole. Although there is considerable research regarding the impact of LD on the individual, there are relatively few studies on how LD affects the entire family. Additionally, the studies that do exist often report conflicting findings. This article will provide an overview of the research findings on how LD may affect parents, siblings and the way the family functions.

Pressure on Parents

Several studies have shown that considerable stress is associated with raising a child with LD. One study found that mothers of boys with LD are more anxious than mothers of boys who don't have LD (Margalit & Heiman, 1986). This finding is similar to results reported by other researchers (Fuller & Rankin, 1994) who found that mothers of children with LD experience more stress than mothers of children without LD who are in general education classes. A study by Dyson (1996) on parental stress, family functioning and sibling self-concept also found greater levels of stress in parents of children with LD when compared to parents of children without LD.

Similarly, a study by Antshel & Joseph (2006) showed that mothers of children with LD report higher levels of stress than mothers of children without LD. Of particular interest in this study is that the kind of stress experienced by mothers was related to the type of LD. Mothers of children with reading disorders had greater levels of general stress, but mothers of children with nonverbal LD reported poorer interactions with their children. This study also dug deeper into specific child and parent characteristics associated with maternal stress and uncovered that the severity of the LD was associated with higher maternal stress in mothers of children with nonverbal LD, but not in mothers of children with reading disabilities. In children with reading disorders, maternal stress was related to the mother's age (younger age/more stress), psychological difficulties and presence of social support.

Other researchers have also shown the relationship between specific child characteristics and parental stress. For example, higher levels of stress are associated with children LD who are less socially competent and display more behavior problems (Dyson, 2003; Landieri, Blacher & Swanson, 2000). These studies illustrate the many factors that intertwine and potentially contribute to the stress of raising a child with LD.

Stress Among Siblings

Some research suggests that siblings of children with LD may develop low self-concept (Purkey, 1970; Atkins, 1991). However, the study by Dyson (1996) mentioned above failed to support this idea. Using a standardized measure of self-concept, 19 siblings of children with LD (ages 7-14) were compared to 55 siblings of children without LD (ages 7 1/2-14 1/2). Results of the study indicated no significant differences between the two groups of siblings. A small study that interviewed eight families of children with LD (Waggoner & Wilgosh, 1990) found that siblings of children with LD may feel ignored by their parents but have to come to terms with receiving less parental attention.

However, Dyson (1996) reported that almost half of the parents in her study found siblings to be patient and understanding of the sibling with LD. In fact, only one parent reported "sibling resentment over the parents' excessive devotion to the child with LD" (although the parents themselves often reported feeling guilty for neglecting their children without LD). Nonetheless, this study also found that 19% of parents reported negative experiences between siblings including the child without LD being teased by the child with LD, fear of the child with LD and copying inappropriate behavior of the child with LD. Other research on siblings of children with LD (Landieri, Blacher & Swanson, 2000) found that children with LD and their siblings held strong feelings of love and affection for one another and that they thought very highly of their brothers and sisters. These findings are not significantly different from the reports made by siblings of typical children. Furthermore, findings from this study indicated that having a sibling with LD did not produce significant evidence of differential treatment by parents or sibling rivalry.

Family Functioning

Research on the effects of a child with LD on how the family functions is somewhat conflicting. Studies have indicated that families with children who have LD tend to emphasize more control, orderliness and personal achievement than families of children without LD but they also experience more family conflict. At the same time, families who have children with LD may provide fewer opportunities for intellectual and recreational activities as well as less encouragement of free emotional expression and personal growth (Margalit & Almougy, 1991; Margalit & Heiman, 1986a, 1986b).

Another study found families of adolescents with LD experience less family cohesiveness and less communication about family problems than families without LD adolescents. However, this same study also reported no differences in family functioning or adjustment (Morrison & Zetlin, 1992). Still other research has reported that family patterns of children with LD fall within "normal limits" (Parker, Hill & Goodnow, 1989). It should also be stressed that some studies have found that despite the difficulties experienced by families of children with LD, there are also positive effects on the family including enhanced "family strength" and personal values (Waggoner & Wilgosh, 1990).

Putting It in Perspective

It's important to emphasize that the impact of LD on the family depends upon multiple factors including the specific characteristics of the child with LD, the parents, the siblings and the family as a whole. It should also be stressed that contextual conditions such as relations with schools and community resources, including the availability of remedial help and counseling, may serve to mediate stress in the family (Shiota, 2006). With this in mind, it's important to understand that the studies reviewed in this article may not necessarily be relevant to, or representative of, your family or families you know who have children with LD. However, this review of research provides insights into the impact of LD on the family and contributes to an understanding that may enhance family interactions and the well-being of individual family members.

There is also one last research finding that I would like to share from my own study of LD across the lifespan (Raskind, Goldberg, Higgins, & Herman, 1999). My colleagues and I found that despite the struggles that may be faced by families of children with LD, adults with LD show great appreciation towards their families for the support and sacrifices made along the way to help ensure that that they would lead successful, satisfying and personally fulfilled lives. That is something family members should keep in mind as they confront the potential challenges of a child with LD.

Selected References

  1. Antshel, K. M. & Joseph, G-R (2006). Maternal stress in nonverbal learning disorder: A comparison with Reading disorder. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 39, 194-205.
  2. Atkins, S .P. (1991). Siblings of learning disabled children: Are they special, too? Child and Adolescent Social Work, 8, 525-533.
  3. Dyson, L. L. (1996). The experiences of families of children with learning disabilities: Parental stress, family functioning, and sibling self-concept. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 29, 280-286.
  4. Dyson, L. L. (2003). Children with learning disabilities within the family context: A comparison with siblings in Global self-concept, academic, self-perception, and social competence. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 18, 1-9.
  5. Fuller, G. B., & Rankin, R. E. (1994). Differences in the levels of parental stress among mothers of learning disabled, emotionally impaired and regular school children. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 78, 583-592.
  6. Lardieri, L. A., Blacher, J., & Swanson, H. L. (2000). Sibling relationships and parent stress in families of children with and without learning disabilities. Learning Disability Quarterly, 23(2), 105-116.
  7. Margalit, M. & Almougy, K. (1991). Classroom behavior and family climate in students with learning disabilities and hyperactive behavior. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 24, 406-412.
  8. Margalit & Heiman, (1986a). Family climate and anxiety in families with learning disabled boys.. Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry, 24, 841-846.
  9. Margalit & Heiman, (1986b). Learning Disabled boys? anxiety, parental anxiety, and family climate. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 15, 218-253.
  10. Morrison, G. M., & Zetlin, A. (1992). Family profiles of adaptability, cohesion, and communication for learning handicapped and nonhandicapped adolescents. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 21, 225-240.
  11. Purkey, W. W. (1970). Self-concept and school achievement. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  12. Raskind, M.H., Goldberg, R.J., Higgins, E.L., & Herman, K.L. (1999). Patterns of change and predictors of success in individuals with learning disabilities: Results from a twenty-year longitudinal study. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 14, 35-49.
  13. Shiota, M.N. (2006), Silver Linings and Candles in the Dark: Differences Among Positive Coping Strategies in Predicting Subjective Well-Being, Emotion, 6(2), 335-339.
  14. Waggoner, K. & Wilgosh, L. (1990). Concerns of families of children with learning disabilities., 23, 97-113.
  15. Parker, T., Hill. J.W. & Goodnow, J. (1989). The impact of special-needs children on their parents' perceptions of family structural interaction patterns. Family Therapy, 16, 259-270.

Marshall H. Raskind, Ph.D., is a learning disability researcher. He is a frequent presenter at international LD conferences and is the author of numerous professional publications on learning disabilities. He is well-known for his research on assistive technology and longitudinal studies tracing LD across the life span.

Malka Margalit, Ph.D., is professor at the School of Education, Tel-Aviv University, the Vice president for international development, in IARLD, and an internationally recognized expert on loneliness and empowerment of families and children with learning disabilities. She serves on the editorial boards of several journals, among them Journal of Learning Disabilities and Exceptional Children.