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Research Trends: Learning Disabilities and the Family

Parental stress and sibling rivalry are often mentioned as concerns among families raising kids with learning disabilities. Now we can learn what research reveals about LD's impact on the family.

By Marshall Raskind, Ph.D. , Malka Margalit, Ph.D.

What does research tell us about children with learning and attention difficulties, and their relationships with their families? In this summary of the research, Marshall Raskind, Ph.D., and Malka Margalit, Ph.D. share their expert perspective in practical terms for parents like you.

Learning disabilities (LD) not only affect the individual with the disability, but can also have a substantial impact on other members of his family, and the family as a whole. Although there is considerable research regarding the impact of LD on the individual, there are relatively few studies on how LD affects the entire family. Additionally, the studies that do exist often report conflicting findings. This article will provide an overview of the research findings on how LD may affect parents, siblings and the way the family functions.

Pressure on Parents

Several studies have shown that considerable stress is associated with raising a child with LD. One study found that mothers of boys with LD are more anxious than mothers of boys who don't have LD (Margalit & Heiman, 1986). This finding is similar to results reported by other researchers (Fuller & Rankin, 1994) who found that mothers of children with LD experience more stress than mothers of children without LD who are in general education classes. A study by Dyson (1996) on parental stress, family functioning and sibling self-concept also found greater levels of stress in parents of children with LD when compared to parents of children without LD.

Similarly, a study by Antshel & Joseph (2006) showed that mothers of children with LD report higher levels of stress than mothers of children without LD. Of particular interest in this study is that the kind of stress experienced by mothers was related to the type of LD. Mothers of children with reading disorders had greater levels of general stress, but mothers of children with nonverbal LD reported poorer interactions with their children. This study also dug deeper into specific child and parent characteristics associated with maternal stress and uncovered that the severity of the LD was associated with higher maternal stress in mothers of children with nonverbal LD, but not in mothers of children with reading disabilities. In children with reading disorders, maternal stress was related to the mother's age (younger age/more stress), psychological difficulties and presence of social support.

Other researchers have also shown the relationship between specific child characteristics and parental stress. For example, higher levels of stress are associated with children LD who are less socially competent and display more behavior problems (Dyson, 2003; Landieri, Blacher & Swanson, 2000). These studies illustrate the many factors that intertwine and potentially contribute to the stress of raising a child with LD.

Stress Among Siblings

Some research suggests that siblings of children with LD may develop low self-concept (Purkey, 1970; Atkins, 1991). However, the study by Dyson (1996) mentioned above failed to support this idea. Using a standardized measure of self-concept, 19 siblings of children with LD (ages 7-14) were compared to 55 siblings of children without LD (ages 7 1/2-14 1/2). Results of the study indicated no significant differences between the two groups of siblings. A small study that interviewed eight families of children with LD (Waggoner & Wilgosh, 1990) found that siblings of children with LD may feel ignored by their parents but have to come to terms with receiving less parental attention.

However, Dyson (1996) reported that almost half of the parents in her study found siblings to be patient and understanding of the sibling with LD. In fact, only one parent reported "sibling resentment over the parents' excessive devotion to the child with LD" (although the parents themselves often reported feeling guilty for neglecting their children without LD). Nonetheless, this study also found that 19% of parents reported negative experiences between siblings including the child without LD being teased by the child with LD, fear of the child with LD and copying inappropriate behavior of the child with LD. Other research on siblings of children with LD (Landieri, Blacher & Swanson, 2000) found that children with LD and their siblings held strong feelings of love and affection for one another and that they thought very highly of their brothers and sisters. These findings are not significantly different from the reports made by siblings of typical children. Furthermore, findings from this study indicated that having a sibling with LD did not produce significant evidence of differential treatment by parents or sibling rivalry.

Marshall H. Raskind, Ph.D., is a learning disability researcher. He is a frequent presenter at international LD conferences and is the author of numerous professional publications on learning disabilities. He is well-known for his research on assistive technology and longitudinal studies tracing LD across the life span.

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

"will all due respect to research I am tired of seeing only results that reflect the impact on the mother, I am a single father who had a learning disabilty as child and I have son with an LD and it has a tremendous effect on any parent not just mothers,and because of my expericences I am much better prepared to help my son "
"Did this article appear in any journal. I would like to know how to cite it."