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Learning disabilities and psychological problems: An overview

What's the connection between learning disabilities and psychological problems? Learn what the research tells us.

By Linda Broatch, M.A.

Children with learning disabilities (LD) often have problems that go far beyond those experienced in reading, writing, math, memory, or organization. For many, strong feelings of frustration, anger, sadness, or shame can lead to psychological difficulties such as anxiety, depression, or low self-esteem, as well as behavioral problems such as substance abuse or juvenile delinquency. "Unfortunately," says Dr. Marshall Raskind, an expert in the field of learning disabilities, "these problems can be far more devastating than the academic challenges themselves. Although the severity and duration of a child's psychological difficulties may vary as she grows up, such issues can find their way into and through adulthood."

Several leading experts in the field of LD have researched the psychological difficulties often experienced by children with LD and have offered suggestions to parents on ways to help protect their children from developing these problems. In this overview article, we will describe in general terms what kinds of psychological problems may affect kids with LD and their possible causes. We will also provide some warning signs parents should look for and direct you to some approaches that can support your child's psychological well-being.

Forthcoming articles in this series, which are being developed over the next few months, will explore specific psychological issues that many children with LD face, such as anxiety, depression, and loneliness.

Some explanations for psychological difficulties in kids with LD

To be most effective in supporting your child, it can help to understand some presumed underlying reasons for the psychological and emotional challenges she may face. Although there are a number of theories on why kids with LD may develop these problems, there are two often cited explanations. First, it is not difficult to see why children with LD are at greater risk for developing psychological difficulties if one considers the repeated failure they experience as they fight their way through the educational system, which may misunderstand or ignore their needs.

Despite the child's efforts and adult promptings to "try harder," children with LD may receive little positive feedback. Their academic struggles and failures are often met with disapproval by teachers, peers, and parents. Such disapproval can take the form of negative labeling of a child as "slow," "lazy," or "dumb." Rather than developing a sense of pride in their accomplishments, children with LD may end up in a quagmire of frustration and shame.

Such feelings only serve to erode the development of a positive self-concept. In fact, as a result of constant struggle and failure, a negative self-image may develop even when others offer support and encouragement. Low self-esteem and a lack of confidence only serve to further interfere with learning and academic success and reinforce a cycle of failure and negativity. Research conducted by Dr. Kenneth Kavale of the University of Iowa and Dr. Steven R. Forness of the University of California at Los Angeles indicates that as many as 70% of children with LD suffer from poor self-esteem. "Over time, children with LD may just stop trying," Dr. Raskind says, "entering a state of ' learned helplessness'where they see little connection between their efforts and ultimate outcomes. ' Why bother?'they may ask, ' No matter how hard I try, I always end up failing.'"

The second frequently offered reason as to why kids with LD may develop psychological problems is the social difficulties they often experience. Research by Drs. Kavale and Forness indicates that as many as 75% of kids with LD have social difficulties such as making and keeping friends. "In fact, social and psychological problems are so interconnected," Dr. Raskind comments, "that it may be quite impossible at times to determine which one may have caused the other. Certainly, psychological problems can have a negative effect on social interaction. Research has shown that children with learning disabilities are less accepted, and often rejected by their peers. Teachers and other adults also may tend to have negative views of children with learning disabilities." Such social rejection can result in loss of self-esteem and negative views of oneself. In addition, social rejection can result in feelings of loneliness, which, in turn, may lead to psychological difficulties such as anxiety and depression.

Linda Broatch has worked for many years in nonprofit organizations that serve the health and education needs of children. She has an M.A. in education, with a focus in child development.

Comments from readers

"I have a 46-year-old son with LD. I am trying to find ways he can survive without me. I'm 80 years old. He doesn't work. We have no one to help. I need to have him learn how to live independently. Any suggestions? I must say he has so much info in his long term memory; he seems brilliant. However, he needs help with independiving. Any suggestions. l "
"I am a mother of five and am very worried about them. I would like to know if LD could be just a stage that they go through. My children are 11,10,8,7 and 5. They all crave for my attention and it is very hard for me to give them all my attention at one time. My 8 year old shows some signs of LD. My eldest daughter is showing some signs also most part because of the trouble she's having in Math.......I really would like some help...thanks, concerned mother"