Children and adolescents with learning disabilities face unique challenges. With research indicating that they are more likely to suffer from anxiety than their peers, it is important to understand what parents, educational professionals, and therapists can do to support them in reducing their daily stress.1 There are some specific steps that can be taken to help a child or adolescent not only to soothe his or her own stress, but also to build self-confidence and resiliency in the process.
“Sometimes kids would rather be the ‘bad’ kid than the ‘dumb’ kid, or they would rather be the class clown …”
One of the worst fears for many children and adolescents with learning differences is to feel or appear “dumb”. Some dread this to the point that their teachers complain that they never raise their hand in the classroom, or always sit at the back to avoid being called on. Dr. Laura Phillips, a neuropsychologist affiliated with the Child Mind Institute, points out that many kids who are classified as having behavioral problems may actually be attempting to cope with their anxiety. “Sometimes kids would rather be the ‘bad’ kid than the ‘dumb’ kid, or they would rather be the class clown. They’re either trying to divert attention away from their academic struggles or they’re trying to have the ‘I don’t care’ attitude as a way of saving face.”2
When kids understand that they are not “stupid,” that they have their own unique strengths and can often learn as effectively as other children if they have the right supports, their propensity for anxiety and subsequent behavioral challenges are greatly reduced. It is essential that teachers, parents, and therapists work together to reinforce this message.
Don’t Give In To The Temptation
While it may be tempting to try to immediately convince a child or adolescent with a learning difference that he is not “stupid,” doing so can actually cause him more anxiety; he is probably struggling with tasks that seem so much easier for his peers, and while he may feel pressured to placate well-intentioned attempts to validate his intelligence, inside he may still lack a sincere belief in his own ability. Sometimes, children and adolescents with learning differences may pick up on our anxiety regarding their self-esteem and well-being, which may ultimately do little to mollify their own anxiety. Therefore, it is more effective to first validate a child’s or adolescent’s feelings of inferiority before attempting to convince him otherwise.
However, what many children and adolescents with learning differences often fail to realize is that they also have unique strengths that may not receive adequate attention. For example, an adolescent who struggles with social skills may also be a talented computer programmer, or a child who struggles with reading may also be great at art. Emphasizing these strengths can be especially important for children and adolescents with learning differences, who are all too frequently accustomed to hearing negative feedback. Doing so will also alleviate some of the anxiety about appearing “dumb.”
“… the process of discovering how one learns and what supports one needs is a lifelong endeavor …”
Children and adolescents with learning differences often fear failure, especially if they have encountered it on multiple occasions. This can lead to avoiding activities that seem especially challenging, including academic work and socializing. Therefore, children and adolescents with learning differences may especially need to hear that failing does not make them a failure; the process of discovering how one learns and what supports one needs is a lifelong endeavor, and this lesson is especially applicable for many kids and adolescents with learning differences as they face new life challenges and transitions.
For example, an adolescent who is rejected by his peers may experience less anxiety in future social situations when he feels that he can learn from the experience, developing new friendship building techniques, while also accepting that he is not going to be liked by everyone. Similarly, a child who fails a reading or math test may experience less anxiety by seeing it as an opportunity to develop new techniques for strengthening his reading or math abilities. While this lesson may be true for any child or adolescent, it can be especially true for those with learning differences, who are continually facing failure and developing new coping techniques in the process.
Steps For Social And Classroom Success
While children and adolescents with learning differences benefit from the knowledge that their struggles may present an opportunity for greater self-awareness about their learning needs, their fear of failure may also be greatly reduced by experiences that validate their strengths and accomplishments. Therefore, the following steps should be taken to provide them with the opportunity to succeed in the classroom and socially.
- Break down academic assignments into smaller parts to help them to feel successful in completing more manageable task
- Find a smaller social setting where they can share common interests with peers which may also reduce feelings of pressure and anxiety and ultimately facilitate more friendships
- Enlist the child or adolescent in an extracurricular activity that he or she would enjoy and can excel at to build his or her self-esteem and provide opportunities for forming friendships
- Inform the child’s teacher of his or her learning needs so that he or she can be encouraged to participate in the learning process at appropriate times while highlighting his or her strengths
As a therapist with years of experience working with young people with learning differences, I have seen numerous examples of anxiety about academic work and social lives; some individuals have even come to the point of fearing going to school. However, I have also seen how educational professionals and therapists can work together to reduce the daily experiences of anxiety and stress.
1. Great!Kids (2016). Anxiety Among Kids with LD: Three Clinical Psychologist Discuss Causes and Symptoms. Retrieved from http://www.greatschools.org/gk/articles/kids-anxiety-causes-symptoms/.
2. Ehmke, R. (ND) Supporting the Emotional Needs of Kids with Learning Disabilities: Signs that Your Child Might be Struggling with Low Self-esteem, Anxiety, or Depression, and How to Help. Retrieved from Child Mind Institute http://childmind.org/article/supporting-the-emotional-needs-of-kids-with-learning-disabilities.
Jorge Lopez-Castroman, M.D., Ph.D., is an attending psychiatrist in the Department of Emergency Psychiatry at Montpellier University Hospital. He conducts research at INSERM, Montpellier, France, focusing on mental disorders, suicidal behavior, substance use disorders, and bipolar disorder. Dr. Lopez-Castroman has authored over 50 peer-reviewed publications in international journals. He holds a European doctorate from the Autonoma University of Madrid and has received awards and research grants. His most recent clinical work involves post-acute care programs for suicidal patients in Madrid and Montpellier.