Family Matters: The Impact of Learning Disabilities

By: Judy Grossman

Family relationships

At best, family relationships are challenging, and raising a child with LD/ADHD can create even more stress for a family. Concerns about a child with LD may impact the marital relationship, parent interactions with that child as well as other children, sibling relationships, and relations with intergenerational family members. Simply put, what happens in the family affects each child, and what happens with each child affects the family.

The marital relationship

In order to promote family resilience and child success it is important to understand the marital relationship. A working partnership is essential to meet the demands that confront parents of a child with learning differences and/or challenging behavior. These demands may include recognizing the problem, seeking help, dealing with the diagnosis, communication with the school collaborating with special education and related service provides and advocating for the child. Parents must support each other as they navigate these important decisions and the routines of everyday life.

Scapegoating the child

Reactions to a child's personal and academic struggles and differences in child-rearing practices may create conflict or tension in a marriage. In addition, problems in marital relationships may spill over and impact feelings of adequacy and competence in the parental role. When there are unresolved marital issues, a child may become the scapegoat for family problems. In such situations, relentless focus on the child's problem behaviors and academic failures may divert the parents' attention from their inter-personal issues; this, in turn, creates additional stress for the child. To avoid scapegoating a child, it's important to recognize other sources of marital tension such as work, finances, sex, competing interests or hobbies, and other demands such as caring for an elderly or sick family member. Once the couple deals with these issues they may have renewed energy and motivation to work together to support their child.

Strengthening the bond

There should be a team approach to parenting, including shared responsibility for decision -making and child management. This requires knowledge of the child’s condition, communication and support. Parents should discuss differences and develop cooperative practices. As the partnership improves, there will be more time to focus on other children, the marital relationship, and personal needs. Raising a child with LD/ADHD can cause tension and conflict or it can energize a family and promote resilience. Since the marital relationship sets the tone for family functioning, find time to connect as a couple. A supportive family environment helps each family member develop confidence and self-respect.

Key to managing family issues

Use the following guide to examine issues that may be affecting your relationship with your partner. In families with a child who also exhibits challenging behaviors associated with ADHD, the conflicts may be more prominent and disruptive.

Beliefs and emotions

It's not unusual to experience ambivalent feelings towards your child: sometimes you feel supportive, loving and patient; other times you feel frustrated and discouraged. Help your partner express a range of feelings such as anxiety, shame, frustration and anger. Talk to each other about how you feel about your child's condition, his school experience, and the future. Do you blame yourself for not recognizing the problem at a younger age? What are your beliefs about the diagnosis and his need for support?

Family history

Talk about your family histories. Did anyone have learning disabilities in your family and, if so, how was it handled? Do you recognize intergenerational patterns or personal characteristics that are similar to your child?

Parenting practices

Agree on a consistent approach and cooperative practices to address expectations, discipline, homework, and extracurricular and family activities. Although different parenting styles can be complementary, it's important not to give your child mixed messages.

Parent-child time

Talk about how each of you can encourage your child's unique strengths and abilities through sports, creativity or social activities. Do you each spend time with her and celebrate her special interests and talents?

Family roles

What family roles have you assumed and what do you expect from each other? For example, is one parent overinvolved and too protective? Is one parent withdrawn and uninvolved with the struggles over homework or is he or she critical and demanding? Talk about your respective responsibilities such as who communicates with school personnel and how you would like decision to be made.

Family stress

Discuss other sources of family stress that may contribute to conflict. Does work, homemaker, family or social responsibilities compromise your energy and commitment to the marital relationship? Do you spend all your time together arguing about the "problem child" so that unknowingly she is the scapegoat for family problems?

Coping skills

Talk about how you manage family stress. Do you communicate effectively and work together to solve problems? Are there sufficient family resources to deal with problems such as time, money, information, practical assistance, and emotional support?

Dr. Judy Grossman is a family therapist in Westport, CT and New York City. She is also a health and education consultant and the special education policy analyst.

Dr. Judy Grossman Copyright ©2001 by Smart Kids with Learning Disabilities, Inc.