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Helping Kids With Learning Disabilities Understand the Language of Friendship

Kids with learning disabilities sometimes struggle in social situations. Here's advice on helping your child avoid misunderstandings and conflicts.

By Janet Giler, Ph.D.,M.F.T.

While children with learning disabilities may know how to initiate friendships, many of their relationships fail because they don't know how to sustain them. Children with learning disabilities often end friendships because they have been unable to work out conflicts. While they may hear their friend's words, they often don't take the communication (e.g., joking and teasing) the way it was intended, often attributing negative intentions when they were not present. Because of their difficulty processing language, many children with learning disabilities are poor listeners. Whether it is because of their problems comprehending verbal and nonverbal communication, or because of their desire to make the information easier to grasp, they often put information into simple, "black and white" categories (e.g., good or bad). Instead of understanding manners, building rapport by checking (asking questions), or understanding that the person may have said something without really thinking of its impact and was unintentionally hurtful, unresolved misunderstandings can escalate into conflicts that can end friendships abruptly.

Listening vs. Comprehending: Do They Understand the Nonverbal Message?

For many kids with learning disabilities, the problem isn't with listening but with understanding how nonverbal and verbal communication fit together. Many children assume that if they understand a friend's words, they don't need to pay attention to his body language. Unfortunately, that isn't true since body language, tone, and other nonverbal expression are often more relevant to understanding what the person intends to say than the actual spoken words. A child with learning disabilities may work so hard to understand a friend's verbal message that he misses the more subtle messages or the way the nonverbal behavior complements or contradicts the verbal message.

When someone's words and body language disagree, kids with learning disabilities may misinterpret the communication if they:

  • miss the difference between good manners and genuine communication.
  • hear criticism when none was intended.
  • assume friendly joking is really unfriendly criticism.
  • put communication into "black and white" categories, either too positive or too negative.

One problem children often have is taking the words a friend or classmate says too literally. While children may have been taught how to read, how to listen, and even how to read body language, they haven't been taught how to interpret the message when someone's body language contradicts his words. The most important concept to keep in mind is that if a person's words and body language disagree, one should pay more attention to the nonverbal message than the actual words.

Nonverbal messages are conveyed in one's tone of voice, facial expressions, and body posture and are more accurate indicators of how the speaker really feels. People often find it is easier to say what is expected, but if their feelings are not consistent with what they are saying, their body language usually will contradict their words. For example, they may avoid eye contact, use a strained tone of voice, or have an unfriendly facial gesture or posture that contradicts their words. When such a conflict exists, the nonverbal message can negate the verbal message. For instance, if your Uncle Charlie says "I love you" but his tone is harsh and he avoids eye contact or looks away when he says it, you'd probably realize something is amiss. While many people understand that the nonverbal message in some way belies the verbal message, it isn't always apparent to children with learning disabilities how to interpret such a contradiction.

Comments from readers

"is there a school in nebraska that helps with kids understanding things that are said. i have a grandson adopted from korea who seems fine when looking at him but socially and him understanding so many things, that you assume he knows, like the other day, he thought the lawn mower made the grass grow, he's 8 and every day something occurs and we realize he does not know so much.....he has to be taught everything from the ground up although he seems to blend in somewhat with kids at school but he does act up in school and we know its all because of not understanding....because he is not naughty at all at home "
"I liked your article very much. I find it very helpful. I believe that identifying, understanding and empathizing to other people's feelings and emotions are critical social skills for our children. I designed a little book for my nephew to help him relate better to others, build strong relationships and have a happy, more enjoyable life. You can find it at: ions#comment-7080581 I designed this book thinking about my nephew, asking my self what I could do to help him grow up to be a respectful man, to be a good person but I think any kid will enjoy the illustrations as much as my nephew does. "