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Talking with family about your child's learning disability

Learn how to explain your child's learning disability to family members in a helpful and sensitive way.

By Ann Christen, M.A., M.F.T. , Kristin Stanberry

"I'm having a hard enough time coping with Jason's learning disability myself, so why do I have to talk to my family about it, too? They think I'm just being overprotective. I really don't think they'll understand. Couldn't it make things worse at home for Jason?"

Why talk to family members?

Coping with a child's learning disability (LD) is stressful for any parent, and the last thing you need is another demand on your time and energy. But avoiding talk about your child's LD can send a message to well-meaning family members that you're hiding something — feeling ashamed, embarrassed, or guilty.

How will family members take the news? Some will accept the problem and offer support right away. Telling the "secret" often produces great relief for everyone involved. And since learning disabilities are often inherited, it may even help other family members understand the reasons they may have had problems when they were in school. Others may disagree or deny there's a problem at all. And some may even blame you or your child. How you approach family members depends both on their current understanding of learning disabilities, and on their willingness to accept that your child has LD. Regardless of the approach you take to informing family members, there are many reasons why educating your family about LD can help your child and you personally:

  • To break down barriers that separate families because of misinformation or misunderstanding
  • To provide a common knowledge of how your child learns - his strengths, as well as challenges - and why he acts as he does
  • To exchange harmful labels (eg., dumb, lazy, inattentive) for terms that describe his talents and help to build self-esteem (eg., creative thinker, star athlete, skilled at math)
  • To help set realistic expectations for your child
  • To reduce feelings of isolation for you and your child
  • To expand the home support system for you and your child

Find your allies

Begin by talking to those in your family who understand and accept the situation. Together, you can decide how to work with resistant relatives. You and your child can depend on these allies to support you and reinforce the message with other family members.

Keep information simple, and avoid using educational jargon. Help family members identify some strategies to help your child succeed in his interactions with them. Remember how overwhelming even basic information was when you first began learning about learning disabilities? Give everyone a chance to think about what you've shared. It won't be easy if the person is in denial — doesn't believe or accept what you're saying. Then you'll need lots of patience and an outside support system to get you through the process.

For most of the family, education isn't something that can be done effectively in one talk. As questions arise, take advantage of the opportunity to answer thoughtfully. Some people may want to learn more on their own, so be ready to provide resources for them — articles, educational programs, and support groups.

Remember to include your child in discussions so he has a chance to tell his own story, in his own way. It's probably better if you do this after you know how others will respond to him. Are they likely to doubt what he's telling them, or will they understand and be able to offer him support? Remember to have him talk about his strengths and talents, as well as his LD.

Kristin Stanberry is a writer and editor specializing in parenting, education, and consumer health/wellness issues. Her areas of expertise include learning disabilities and AD/HD, which she wrote about extensively for Schwab Learning and GreatSchools.