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Helping Teens With LD Develop a Healthy, Balanced Lifestyle

Learn why many teens with learning disabilities and AD/HD struggle to achieve a healthy, balanced life.

GreatSchools Blog

By Arlyn Roffman, Ph.D.

We all want our children to grow up to have a healthy lifestyle, wherein they maintain personal hygiene and good grooming, eat a nutritious diet, take care of medical and dental needs, and fill their leisure time with enough exercise and personal interests to create balance and quality of life.  Adults with learning disabilities (LD) and/or Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD) often face challenges as they juggle the many components of healthy living. This article will describe some of the challenges they face and will offer parents of middle and high school children with LD or AD/HD strategies to foster development in this important area.

Personal Hygiene and Good Grooming

The table below illustrates how various characteristics of LD and AD/HD can present challenges to practicing personal hygiene and good grooming.

Learning or Attention Problem

Challenges to Hygiene and Grooming

Visual discrimination

Difficulty coordinating one's clothing (e.g., complementary colors, patterns, and styles)

Fine-motor coordination (ability to use one's hands and fingers effectively)

Problems tying a necktie; shaving without nicking skin; applying makeup; and styling hair

Spatial perception

Difficulty being thorough when shaving; problems turning faucets to the desired temperature when bathing/showering

Tactile defensiveness (over- or under-sensitivity to touch)

Trouble tolerating the irritation of having one's hair cut, the scratchiness of labels on clothing, and the seams inside socks

Distractibility

Tendency to become distracted and forget certain steps in personal hygiene (e.g., applying deodorant)

Tips for Teaching Your Teen about Hygiene and Grooming

Teen magazines feature articles about hygiene and grooming every month. If your child with LD or AD/HD shows an interest, help her select a few magazines with relevant articles, and discuss how she can use the tips they offer.  Additional ideas to help you foster development of good hygiene and grooming are listed below:

  • By early middle school, show your teen how to attend to personal hygiene,and explain the pros and cons of various products. By high school teens should regularlypurchase the products they prefer (e.g., razors, deodorant, shampoo, tampons) within an agreed-upon budget.
  • If you have a tactile-defensive teen, encourage her to maintain a hairstyle that is easy to cut and style, with a minimum of fussing and irritation. Enlist a trustworthy barber or hairdresser.
  • Buy an electric razor for your son with fine-motor problems or spatial difficulties, and encourage him to double check with his fingers to make sure he has fully shaved the intended territory.
  • Buy light-colored lipstick or gloss for your daughter with fine-motor or spatial difficulties, and explain that she will find it's easier to correct makeup "mistakes" with these products. 
  • If your teen has visual discrimination problems, encourage her to enlist a friend or relative to act as a "clothing advisor." Luckily, in today's fashion scene, almost anything goes!Even so,help your teen shop for garments that mix and match easily. A chart of matching outfits is helpful as well.
  • Encourage your child to keep her morning routine simple and allow ample time for hygiene and grooming. Some find it easier to shower and set out clothing the night before school or work.
  • Have your teen follow weather forecasts each night and lay out clothes and accessories appropriate for the next day's conditions.

Routine Health and Medical Care

The table below illustrates how various characteristics of LD and AD/HD can present challenges to managing one's health and medical needs.

Learning or Attention Problem

Challenges to Managing Health and Medical Care

Memory

Difficulty remembering medical and dental appointments; problems remembering medications taken and specifics of medical history

Receptive language (understanding written or spoken language)

Problems understanding doctors' explanations, diagnoses, and courses of treatment; difficulty understanding directions on medication labels

Expressive language

Trouble explaining one's symptoms and/or conveying medical history

Reading

Difficulty reading medication labels and nutritional labels on foods

Writing

Problems filling out forms at doctors' offices

Math

Difficulty calculating the time intervals for taking medication; trouble measuring liquid medicines

Visual discrimination

Problems discriminating between pills that look alike

Distractibility

Tendency to become distracted and forget to take medication at prescribed intervals

Tips for Teaching Your Teen Healthy Medical Habits

With regard to health care, you can help your child with LD and/or AD/HD to develop an understanding of his medical needs, how to convey his needs to others, and how to safely take medications. The following are some specific tips:

General Knowledge of Medical Self-Care

  • Discuss routine healthcare with your child. Adults with LD and/or AD/HD often find it easier to remember annual physicals when they are scheduled around their birthdays; likewise, twice-yearly dental appointments may be easily remembered if they are tied to holidays spaced six months apart (e.g., July Fourth and New Year's Day). 

  • Teach your teen basic medical vocabulary, such as the names of key specialists (e.g., gynecologist, orthopedist) and terms for common symptoms (e.g., muscle spasm).

  • Discuss the symptoms of common ailments, such as a cold or sore throat, and the appropriate treatment (including medication) for each. Show him how to use a thermometer, and explain what constitutes a fever.

  • Explain the purpose of hospital emergency rooms, and discuss circumstances that would warrant calling 9-1-1.  Review common illnesses and injuries (e.g., a broken ankle) that would not require an ambulance but might require a visit to the ER.

Medical and Dental Appointments

  • By late high school, your teen should start scheduling his own medical and dental appointments. Coach him regarding the information he will need to have handy (e.g., any changes in address, phone number, insurance carrier), remind him to have his calendar available, and stay with him the first few times he takes on this responsibility.

  • If possible, have the office mail any forms to you ahead of time, so you can help your child complete them prior to the appointment. This will save him the trouble of filling the forms out on his own - under pressure - in the waiting room.

  • Before you take your teen to the doctor, model how to write up a list of symptoms and questions to present to the physician. Tell him this is a good habit to continue once he starts going to appointments on his own.

  • Take a tape recorder to each of your teen's doctor's appointments to record and later review any discussion of symptoms, diagnoses, or treatments. Encourage him to continue this practice when he starts going to medical appointments by himself.

  • Compile a personal medical "fact sheet" for your child. In list form, write out his medical history (including surgeries), your family's medical history, and any prescription medications he takes as well as any he's allergic to. Have him become familiar with his health history, and let him practice referring to the fact sheet for answers. Have him update it as needed.

  • Encourage your teen to disclose his learning or attention problems to his health care providers. Explain that it's to his advantage for them to be familiar with his difficulties so they can provide accommodations (e.g., having him repeat the treatment plan back to the doctor to ensure understanding, or giving him a simply-stated written diagnosis and treatment plan with illustrations or charts).

Managing Medication:

  • Model how to consult with a pharmacist. Point out that pharmacists are available to advise patients regarding correct dosages of new medications, possible side effects to watch for, and to help create a schedule of exact times when pills should be taken.  

  • Encourage your teen to enlist trustworthy family members or friends to help him read medicine labels and directions. Remind him of the importance of reading about each new medicine before taking it.

  • Show your child how to measure liquid medication (e.g., cough syrup) using a hollow-stem medicine measuring spoon (available at most drug stores).

  • Demonstrate how to mark similar-looking medicine bottles with brightly colored tape so your child can readily tell one from the other.

  • Show your teen how to set his wristwatch or cell phone to alert him when it's time to take the next dose of medicine.

Achieving Life Balance: The Importance of Leisure Activities

Most parents recognize that their teens with LD or AD/HD need extra support to learn how to manage their physical health. However, many fail to realize that their children would also benefit from help in learning how to plan and pursue leisure activities that contribute to good health, foster a sense of wellness, and bring balance to their lives.

Too often, teens with LD and AD/HD know quite well what they like to do but don't know how to translate interest into activity or have no one with whom to engage in leisure pursuits. If they are to have the quality of life we all wish our children to experience, it's important to help them identify their strengths and interests and find satisfying ways to pursue them.

There are a variety of ways having a learning disability or AD/HD might affect an individual's leisure time pursuits, including:

Learning or Attention Problem

Challenges to Social Life and Recreation

Reading

Difficulty deciphering game rules

Math

Trouble keeping score in games (e.g., bowling)

Receptive language (understanding written or spoken language)

Problems understanding what is said in interactive settings; difficulty understanding jokes and figurative language

Visual memory

Trouble remembering game plays, dance steps, or how to set up a board game

Visual motor

Problems executing dance steps or playing ball (catching, batting, kicking)

Auditory motor

Difficulty dancing or clapping to rhythm

Auditory discrimination

Problems discriminating sarcasm from joking based on someone's tone of voice

Visual discrimination

Difficulty discriminating between  sarcasm and joking based on a speaker's facial expression

Visual figure-ground discrimination (trouble focusing one's vision on a single item against a "busy" visual background)

Problems tracking the ball or puck in spectator sports; finding a friend in a crowd; finding one's seat again after going for refreshments in a theater or sports stadium

Social perception

Difficulty modulating voice volume/laughter/weeping in theaters, restaurants, and other public places where low voice volume is the norm

Hyperactivity

Problems sitting still during a performance or game

Distractibility

Difficulty maintaining concentration on the game or activity at hand

Tips for Teaching Your Teen to Pursue Rewarding Leisure Time Activities

  • Help your teenager identify her areas of interest and how they might be pursued in the community. Throughout middle school and into high school, children's interests are likely to be in sports and activities sponsored by school or local clubs. As your teen matures, try to help her identify how she might continue to pursue her interests within the larger community after she graduates. Investigate membership at the local YWCA or at nearby gyms for physical activity. Look into the offerings at area centers for adult education or arts centers if she's interested in the arts. Your place of worship may have a chorus that could fill your teen's interest in music. If she's a hiker, check the membership requirements of such affinity groups as the Sierra Club. If she's an avid reader, check whether the local library sponsors a book club for community members. If your teen plans to attend college, help her investigate recreational/interest pursuits on campus.
  • Explore volunteer and community service activities (e.g., the local food pantry or animal shelter) in your area, and discuss whether such volunteer work might be of interest to your teen. If so, consider going with her the first time or two to help her understand what's being asked of volunteers.
  • Teach your child how to compensate for difficulties that interfere with her leisure activities. If she has trouble remembering dance steps she has seen, talk her through the actual movements, step by step, to provide auditory input that will help her recall where her feet should go. If she has difficulty finding her seat at the stadium after she goes for refreshments, advise her to find visual markers and jot them down on a pad of paper. If she worries about not being able to sit still during a performance, suggest that she squeeze a squishy-ball to expend some energy while she stays seated.
  • Help your teen create a master monthly calendar on which to clearly schedule her routine tasks, including school, work, chores, and extracurricular activities. Add non-routine activities, such as doctor's appointments. Note that empty space on the calendar represents free time. Young adults with LD or AD/HD benefit from this level of structure, which provides a visual sense of tasks and of free time for leisure pursuits.

Looking Forward to Independent Adulthood

Children with LD and AD/HD grow into adults with LD and/or AD/HD. But with your support as they acquire the daily living skills addressed in this series, they needn't be handicapped by their disability. They can learn a broad range of skills, which promote a healthy, balanced lifestyle and can look forward to excellent quality of life in their adult years.

Arlyn Roffman, Ph.D., an expert on transition issues in special education, is a Professor at Lesley University, where she served as founding director of Threshold, a transition program for young adults with learning disabilities, from 1981 to 1996. She has served on the professional advisory boards of several national LD organizations and maintains a private practice in psychology.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

07/22/2009:
"Want some additional information, answers to questions, or support? Please consider joining and posting them at the 'Learning and Attention Difficulties' group found here at GS to receive to receive practical suggestions from parents who have faced similar challenges: http://community.greatschools.org/groups/11554"
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