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Talking with your teenager about learning difficulties

An expert offers advice on fostering ongoing, positive dialogue with your teenager about her learning problems and how they impact her life.

By Brian Inglesby, M.A., L.E.P.

Adolescence can be a trying time for you and your teenager, especially if she has learning problems. At an age when kids are often least willing to talk with their parents, it's probably most important to keep the lines of communication open and operating. Conversing with your teenager about her learning difficulties can be particularly challenging - and valuable.

In her drive to forge a distinct identity, your teenager may spend a lot of time asserting her independence in the face of adult authority, staunchly defending her peer group, and challenging your opinions and values. Teens are also faced with greatly increased school demands. All of this can make it tricky to talk with her about her learning problems.

Open, straightforward, and persistent communication with your adolescent about her learning struggles helps her build skills of self-awareness and self-advocacy that will serve her through middle school and high school, and into adulthood. This article presents some practical approaches for keeping your child engaged in a conversation with you and other adults about her learning struggles, so that she can rise to the challenge of doing her best at school.

Listen for signs of frustration

With the increased academic demands of middle school and high school, your teen may experience new or more severe problems with learning or social demands. If you notice a change in attitude when your teenager talks about school, pay attention to the signs. You know her better than anyone else, so be sensitive to any clues she may be giving you. Adolescents who are struggling may describe school as "stupid" or "boring," or refer to themselves as "retarded."

There are also some nonverbal behaviors that may be an expression of frustration with school. Adolescents may tear up their homework, refuse to talk about their day, or overreact to questions about school with outbursts of anger. Or, they may seem unusually quiet or withdrawn. How should you respond? Ask yourself if your child has been acting this way for several weeks. Are there other possible causes of her behavior, such as family upheaval or a move to a new school? If not, it may be time to talk with her to get an update about current problems with school work.

Gather some facts

Gather information about the nature of your child's learning struggles from as many sources as possible. These may include current books and articles, as well as detailed information on learning strengths and weaknesses from each of her teachers, across all subject areas. Press for details so that you understand very concretely how her problems are affecting academic performance, especially in reading, writing, speaking, and math. A few examples of weaknesses that a parent or teacher might easily overlook are:

  • In the upper grades the organizational demands of keeping track of homework and class work across multiple subject areas is demanding for even the most capable student. Disorganization may be "invisible" until it causes serious problems with getting work completed and to the teacher on time;
  • A student in middle school may be perceived as having adequate reading skills and good vocabulary, but actually possess poor comprehension and memory skills;
  • A high school student may have strong oral language skills, but continued weaknesses in written language.

As you gather information about your child's learning problems, identify her areas of strength, too. These strengths will likely be the compensatory tools that help her overcome or bypass areas of weakness.

Brian Inglesby, M.A., is a licensed educational psychologist who enjoys the challenges of working with students with a broad spectrum of learning issues. Of special interest to him is the opportunity to provide teachers, parents, and students with the ability to better understand and manage a student's unique learning profile.