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How learning disabilities affect family dynamics

Raising a child with LD is a family affair. Dr. Betty Osman explains how to manage many of the problems that may emerge.

By Betty Osman, Ph.D.

The focus of identification and management of learning disabilities (LD) has been and continues to be primarily academic — how children's strengths and weaknesses affect achievement in school. Yet parents often report that LD affects life at home, as well. In this article, Betty Osman, Ph.D., describes how learning disabilities impact family dynamics.

From the moment parents become aware of their child's learning disability (LD), another dimension is added to the family system. While a young person's problems may seem most apparent at school, they quickly become "a family affair" in every sense of the word.

Life in the family of a child with LD is complex and challenging, involving practical and emotional issues. There are medical and educational decisions, financial pressures, and time constraints — all likely to represent additional responsibilities for parents. And the inherent concern, disappointment, anger, self-recrimination and blame — typical emotions in response to a child's problem — also contribute to the pressures frequently disruptive to the family equilibrium and divisive to a marriage.

While some may think parental bonds are strengthened in the face of adversity, unfortunately, the opposite is true. Many parents have a difficult time accepting their child's problems and reconciling their own differences in response to them, while trying to manage daily life at home and in their respective careers. Parenting a child is never easy, but a strong relationship is required to withstand the additional stress of raising a child with special needs. This is even more challenging when one parent is given, or assumes, the role of case manager with less than maximum support from other family members.

A boy in my office, an eight-year-old with a variety of learning issues, seems to know just how to exasperate his mother. He's ready for a fight when she awakens him in the morning, refuses to get dressed until pushed and prodded, lets the hamster escape, and teases his sister until she cries — all before breakfast. Then he frequently misses the school bus, a great inconvenience for his mother who is late for work. His mother, in turn, has been criticized by her husband and even her parents for "being too easy on Jeremy," with the implication that she created his problems.

The reality, of course, is that she did not. Parents cannot cause a child's learning disabilities, nor can they cure them. They can indeed help but not by blaming one another or themselves.

In another family, a mother suspected her third child wasn't developing as quickly as his brothers had. His language was somewhat delayed, and he didn't seem the least bit interested in learning to read in first grade. Although Robbie's mother was concerned, his father insisted that nothing was wrong. He was convinced that Robbie was "just lazy," remembering that as a boy he had not liked school either.

When Robbie was in third grade, his father had unrealistic expectations for his son, refusing to believe that he couldn't achieve like his other children. "He's smart; I know he could do it if he tried harder," he would say. "I had similar problems when I was young."

He also had little patience with his wife's efforts to help their son. He accused her of "spoiling" Robbie and being "overprotective." He resented the time she spent on his homework, accusing her of contributing to Robbie's dependency and, therefore, to his disability. The resentment put an additional strain on the marital relationship and drove the father even further away from his son.

Comments from readers

"The biggiest contributor to family disharmony isn't the disabled family member.Its the inability of those in the family who aren't disabled to recognize the fact that the person that they begrudingly accept is disabled at the expense of everyone elses conduct but themselves.My sister has yet to grasp the concept that my very presence wasn't a preordained scheme to devalue or undermine her place on the family tree.My sister had twins after I had my first child and having endured brain damage and wasn't suppose to live its pretty miraculous that I'm a father today.My sister doesn't see it that way she sees it that I one upped her again.The sad residue to this petty and competitive nature is that my son won't see his cousins."