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Loneliness among Children With Learning Disabilities

What causes kids with learning disabilities or AD/HD to feel lonely? An expert tells you what the research shows.

By Linda Broatch, M.A. , Malka Margalit, Ph.D.

Few things are harder for a parent to witness than a child who tries repeatedly and unsuccessfully to make and keep friends. Research reveals that children with learning disabilities (LD) are more prone to loneliness. Dr. Malka Margalit, Head of the Constantiner School of Education at Tel-Aviv University in Israel, is a leading researcher on the issue of loneliness among children with LD. She, her colleagues, and other researchers have learned a great deal over the past 25 years about how the child herself experiences loneliness; how other kids respond to the lonely child with LD; and how specific personal strengths and adult support may help a child with LD avoid or overcome loneliness.

In this first of two articles on the topic, we present the research findings of Dr. Margalit and others on several aspects of loneliness among kids with LD, including:

  • Why children with LD are more likely than other kids to be lonely;
  • Some specific ways in which the individual child may experience loneliness.

The second article will look at what the research tell us about:

  • Loneliness among children of elementary and secondary school age
  • Children with LD who are not lonely and the characteristics that appear to "protect" them from loneliness; and
  • Approaches parents and other adults can take to help children to cope with or overcome loneliness.

Why Children with LD are More Likely to be Lonely

According to Dr. Margalit, children with LD have personal characteristics that not only increase the likelihood that they will be lonely, but may also make it more difficult for them to cope with the feelings that accompany loneliness.1 Kids with LD who experience loneliness, she points out, often have real social difficulties, which can result in a poor social network, low social status, and rejection by other kids. Dr. Margalit describes three factors often identified as predicting social difficulties and loneliness among kids with LD:

  • Knowledge deficit. They may not have acquired the age-appropriate knowledge they need in order to develop satisfactory social relations.2 For example, they may not understand what they need to do in order to be considered "a good friend" or what they can expect from their good friends. When these children are asked, "What is a good friend?" or "What can you do when you want other children to include you in their play?" they don't respond with the knowledge and understanding that their peers without LD possess.
  • Performance deficit. Even when they have age-appropriate social knowledge, children with LD may not be able to turn it into appropriate social behavior.3 For example, Daniel may know that he has to wait for his turn in a video game with friends. However, he may not be able to control his eagerness, and may react to the frustration of waiting by becoming aggressive or crying. This behavior is not likely to make him popular with the other kids.
  • Adopting the behavioral style of the rejected child. Sometimes a lonely child's words and actions communicate to others that they have a low self-concept and don't expect to be accepted by the group or to be able to make friends.4 For example, Sarah wants to join a group of kids who are playing, but at the same time she anticipates that they will not let her. She is emotionally prepared to be refused and rejected. So, if she sees them laughing as she approaches them, she may assume that they are laughing at her or at her desire to join them. If she is anxious or doesn't have the patience to wait to find out what's really going on, she may immediately say, "If you don't want me to play with you, then I am leaving!" In this way, Sarah may "create" the very situation she fears.

In addition, children with learning difficulties may find it more challenging to spend time alone. "Younger children need constant help from adults to keep busy and find satisfaction in their activities," Dr. Margalit comments. "As they grow older, they develop the ability to more independently engage in and enjoy solitary activities. However, children with learning disabilities may have a developmental delay in their ability to find enjoyable solitary activities, perhaps due to restlessness, reading struggles, or a short attention span. As a result, their experience of loneliness may be more pronounced, and their need for friends may feel more urgent" 5.

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.

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.

Comments from readers

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