Children with learning disabilities (LD) are more likely to be lonely than kids without LD. A growing body of research shows that many children with LD face considerable challenges in making and keeping friends. Fortunately for parents of children with LD, research studies also offer some guidance about effective approaches to help children cope with or avoid loneliness.
In this article, the second of two on the topic of loneliness among children with LD, we present the research findings of Dr. Malka Margalit, Head of the Constantiner School of Education at Tel-Aviv University in Israel, who has studied loneliness among children with LD for more than 20 years.
The first article, “Loneliness among children with learning disabilities,” addressed the questions:
- Why are children with LD more likely than their peers to be lonely?
- How do children with LD experience loneliness?
- What are some particular social and emotional characteristics of lonely children with LD?
In this article, we summarize some of Dr. Margalit’s research on:
- Loneliness among elementary school kids and adolescents
- Characteristics of kids with LD who are not lonely
- Effective approaches to helping the child with LD cope with or avoid loneliness.
Loneliness among elementary school children with LD
When researchers study popularity and friendships in school settings, they often ask children to name several kids in their class they like and several they dislike. When two children name each other as a person they like, researchers refer to them as “identified friends.” Likewise, two kids who name each other as a person they dislike are termed “identified enemies.”
Using the identified-friend/enemy survey, Dr. Margalit’s research1 revealed that, within the group of children with LD, those who had at least one “identified enemy” in the class felt lonelier than kids with LD who had no identified enemies. However, among the kids without LD , those with an identified enemy did not feel lonelier than kids without an identified enemy. This finding reveals, Dr. Margalit says, the social and emotional vulnerability of students with LD, who, because they often have such limited social networks, attach greater importance to the negative attitudes of other kids toward them. In general, research shows that children with LD are more likely to experience social stresses such as loneliness, and are less likely to have the internal resources to cope effectively with them.
Interestingly, one of Dr. Margalit’s studies indicated that computer use predicted lower levels of loneliness for kids with LD. “We need to look more closely at whether children’s use of the Internet will challenge our traditional views of understanding what loneliness and friendship are,” Dr. Margalit commented. “Sometimes we are biased against technology, worried that children may neglect their face-to-face friendships in favor of virtual connections. I would like to encourage parents to think differently about e-friends and Web peers, since they may expand children’s social networks, enable them to try out their social skills, as well as give them a different sense of their social status.”
Loneliness among adolescents with LD
Dr. Margalit conducted another study2 to determine whether social environment would have any impact on the prevalence of loneliness among teenagers with LD. She and her colleagues compared rates of loneliness between a mixed (with and without LD) group of teens living in an urban environment, and a comparable group of teens living on an Israeli kibbutz. Because the kibbutz is a highly communal living arrangement, some researchers predicted that kids with LD in this environment would be less likely than the urban kids with LD to experience loneliness. This was not the case. In fact, this and other studies showed that, across age and social setting, teenage kids with LD consistently reported higher levels of loneliness. They were also rated by their teachers as less socially adjusted, and by their peers as less accepted.
Not all children with LD are lonely
In several studies of loneliness among children with LD, according to Dr. Margalit, a small group of kids with LD was identified who were not more likely to view themselves as lonely or socially distressed than were their peers without LD. Using a research approach that emphasizes identifying kids’ strengths, Dr. Margalit identified two characteristics common to the children with LD who were not lonelier than their peers without LD:
- They had age-appropriate social skills.
- They had average scores on a survey that measures “sense of coherence.”3
A child with a strong sense of coherence views the world both within and outside himself as ordered and predictable. When this child faces a problem, such as feeling isolated and out of touch with classmates, he is able to assess the problem and choose, from among a repertoire of social skills, an appropriate strategy to address it. For example, he might strike up a conversation with a classmate, using the strategy of identifying a mutual interest such as a recent movie, a television program, or a new computer game. Or the child might develop social relationships outside school, either in his neighborhood or through a hobby or a leisure activity that involves contact with other children.
Helping children with LD overcome loneliness
Dr. Margalit cautions that parents may sometimes feel anxious while trying to help their child cope with loneliness. A child’s despair may bring back unpleasant memories of their own childhood experiences of loneliness. Dr. Margalit encourages parents to be aware of two important things:
- Because they are role models for their child’s social behavior, they should reflect on and converse with their kids about their experiences in current and childhood friendships.
- Parents can also model self-awareness and reflection on the positive and negative emotions associated with friendships.
“When parents share with children the challenges they face in cultivating and maintaining friendships,” Dr. Margalit says, “children gain the hope and motivation they need to cope with their own social difficulties.”
Effective approaches to helping children with LD to overcome loneliness, according to Dr. Margalit, require both a carefully structured social environment and close attention to each child’s particular social skills and challenges. With the overarching goal of empowering the child with LD to improve his social relations with peers, Dr. Margalit emphasizes that successful interventions rely on a combination of approaches. Among these are:
- Becoming knowledgeable about your child’s social life. Observe your child’s social behavior to determine specific strengths and weaknesses. For example, you might compare your child’s behavior in initiating and maintaining social contacts with those same behaviors among his peers. You might want to check your observations against those of your child’s teacher or coach, as well.
- Structuring the environment to promote friendship and satisfactory relationships among kids, to provide them opportunities to experience social competence. For example, you might set up an opportunity for a lonely child to work collaboratively with another child on a task or project, being careful to select a child who is likely to work well with your child, and a task that they can successfully complete. Let your child’s teachers know that you are working with your child on friendship skills. The teacher can then structure the classroom environment to support his efforts to form satisfying social connections with classmates.
- Providing training and intervention to promote children’s competence and sense of control. During Dr. Margalit’s study, children had the advantage of practicing social skills in the context of carefully structured training activities. To help children “transfer” these skills from the training sessions to the “outside” world, adults engaged children in conversations about how the social situations they faced in the training were similar to those in their lives. Individual children were asked to try out a particular social task in a real-life situation and report back on how it worked. The results were “quite promising,” Dr. Margalit says. Children became more active in initiating social contacts and planning social activities, and became less impulsive and less rejecting during social exchanges. Different types of social skills training were found to be effective:
- Peer tutoring
- Problem-solving exercises
Problem-solving exercises were based on typical social scenarios that researchers developed based on children’s own reports of social challenges and disappointments. For example, “Dan sees his friends heading for the computer lab to play games, but Dan is not invited.” Children were asked, “If you were Dan, what could you do?” Children were asked to map out different options, evaluate the pros and cons of each, and choose one course of action. Predictably, some children suggested aggressive responses (“Yell at the kids!”), and others suggested passive responses (“Just don’t talk to them.”). Some kids suggested age-appropriate strategies such as inviting the group of kids to play a new computer game, or getting together with another child who wasn’t invited to join the activity.
Nurturing a child’s belief in his ability to develop better friendship skills. 4 For a child to cope effectively with stressors in his life such as loneliness, he requires ongoing empathy, encouragement, and problem-solving support from adults in order to:
- View friendships and satisfying social relations as important.
- Develop the hope and motivation to persist in making friends.
- Maintaining a positive attitude and accepting that kids may vary in the way they form friendships. You may feel sometimes that the social relationships your child is developing are childish or superficial or that your child’s friends are too young or not really a good match. By understanding that friendship skills take time and practice, you will be able to give your child the encouragement and support he needs to build these skills in his own way and at his own pace.
Loneliness is distressing for anyone. For a child with LD, loneliness may become an ongoing struggle, resulting from a lack of social skills, or a belief that he cannot make and keep friends. As a parent, you can play an important role in identifying your child’s specific social strengths and challenges, and helping him understand that friendships require effort and skill. By doing so, you support his hopes for closer friendships and more meaningful social networks in the future.
This article is based on excerpts from: Margalit, M. & Al-Yagon, M. (2002). “The loneliness experience of children with learning disabilities.” In B. Y. L. Wong & M. Donahue (Eds.). The social dimensions of learning disabilities (pp 53-75). Lawrence Erlbaum, New Jersey.
Full citations of the following studies referenced in our article appear in the book chapter (cited above) on which the article is based (Margalit & Al-Yagon, 2002).
- Margalit, Tur-Kaspa & Most, 1999
- Margalit & Ben-Dov, 1995
- Antonovsky, 1979; 1987
- Rizzo, 1988