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Working With Families of Children With a Learning Disorder

Help navigate the complexity of raising a child with a learning disorder.

Key points

  • It’s common for parents to experience anxiety, fragility, frustration, and confusion when dealing with a child with a learning disability (LD).
  • With help in understanding their feelings, families can prevent or minimize frustration and better respond to their child with LD.
  • Tough Love does not work with children with LDs, and its more likely that only the “tough” will be comprehended, not the “love.”

Co-authored with Miranda Melcher

Parenting a child with a learning disorder can present rewards and trials. We work closely with our client’s parents to help them best respond to their child with a learning disability (LD). It’s very common for both clients and their parents to experience anxiety, fragility, frustration, and confusion. With help in understanding their feelings, families can prevent or minimize this from happening. Parents/family members can learn how to deal with their feelings, understand their limitations, and realize how their family histories and dynamics will influence their expectations for their children. Parents can learn how these expectations will affect their children with LD.

Family Member Emotions

Challenges can occur if the parents or caretakers of a child with LD blame themselves for creating or adding to its cause. This can be through the inadvertent passing along of a predisposition toward having LD; they might also have a learning disorder. Their child’s issues can also remind them of their own, a spouse, or a sibling’s difficulties. They may have failed to protect the child from environmental toxins or be concerned about their health during pregnancy having had an impact. They may or may not share their child’s sensitivity to stimulation, noise, heat, or light. Their child’s difficulty can impact their own natural and normal hopes for their child’s future.

Family members often alternate between being too worried and guilty about their child’s experience or having anger, denial, or losing patience about their child’s behaviors. Parents often react with frustration when confused, overwhelmed, or simply tired. This dynamic can lead to additional demoralization on everyone’s part. Since children cannot understand their parent’s reactions, they often believe that the parent's distress is their fault. The child can feel a variety of troubling emotions, such as feeling depressed, anxious, stupid, crazy, and confused. Siblings may also be affected, experiencing difficult and conflicting emotions such as loss, resentment, or guilt.

Secondary Psychological Issues

Any of these experiences can help create secondary psychological issues of shame, depression, and anxiety. They can give rise to unconscious convictions that, as a child, you are at fault for the problems that arise. The child’s irrational self-blame and unconscious guilt stem from the responsibility they assume for anything bad that happens to them or their significant others. These beliefs are powerful. For example, a child with LD who is kept close to the family may incorrectly believe that their parents want them to remain dependent upon them. The family’s actual motivation might be to protect them from potential problems. This misunderstanding might cause the child to inhibit desires to be strong and independent because they might have incorrectly assumed that they would displease their parents if they followed this desire (Broitman et al., 2020).

“Tough Love”

Parents frequently ask clinicians what the line is between helping versus holding help back so the child learns to do it independently. Essentially, we frequently encounter parents wondering about the benefits of a “tough love” approach.

We do not favor using a tough-love approach with children with LDs for several reasons. As discussed in a previous blog on labeling, it can take years for someone’s LDs to be diagnosed; during that time, the child often thinks of themselves as failures, broken, or somehow bad. The child, therefore, already feels like they are less able to do things and does not understand why, and does not have the necessary support.

In this context, a post-diagnosis approach of “tough love” can easily appear to a child as a continuation of their self-perceived failures, perpetuating feelings of hopelessness and demotivation. Especially after receiving a diagnosis that may feel like “finally” explaining distress and confusion, feeling like important adults are not available to begin to provide more tailored or relevant support and instead focusing on “do it yourself” can harm relationships. This is compounded by the fact that many LDs include a social communication component, meaning that communication between people with LDs and those without can be misunderstood. Unfortunately, this makes it more likely that only thetough” will be comprehended, not the “love.”

If not “tough love,” then what?

Recommending against tough love does not mean doing everything for the person with LDs forever. We believe that the family and practitioner must monitor, balance, and/or titrate the level of frustration being experienced by the child so that they are encouraged to increase their skills repertoire without becoming hopeless and disaffected. It is a therapeutic balancing act, a difficult tension. Rourke (1995), for example, stressed that it is necessary to cultivate realistic expectations for the person with LD, taking account of both assets and deficits.

Create a scaffolding from which the child can begin to develop skills.

Matte and Bolaski (1998) suggested that honesty, clarity, and directness are essential to the child developing self-worth and self-awareness and fostering an understanding and acceptance of their ability rather than fostering overemphasis of disability. Whitney (2000) recommended that clinicians bridge the gaps for their LD clients until they can develop the needed skills for themselves. We believe that these collaborations will develop competence and self-esteem and work to help parents overcome their fears of holding their children back.

Martin (2007) concurred, encouraging families to step in and help their child progress appropriately, noting that each child will have different skills. Martin reflected upon families' difficulty balancing their wishes to promote their child’s independence and the realities that require additional interventions. She encouraged a progressive approach in which one withdraws support whenever it is no longer needed but is ever ready to put it back in if the child encounters something new and novel and cannot quite figure out how to access and generalize previously learned material.

These collaborations can include the following ideas drawn from Martin (2007):

  • Ask your child questions to stretch their thinking.
  • Help them see patterns, understand and anticipate routines, and use schedules.
  • Develop an open and non-judgmental relationship that will promote their allowing you to know they need help.
  • Regularly check in with them regarding how things are going. Specifically, ask about their social interactions and demystify the novelty.
  • Encourage their reflectivity through modeling/verbalizing finding solutions to challenges.
  • Limit the number of new experiences so that they have the ability to practice and master tasks.

Create a Safe Haven

Martin (2007), the mother of a child with LD, acknowledged the burden parents of children with LD have to create a safe home environment. She stressed the importance of providing a psychologically safe refuge, free from the exhausting demands of the outside world. Just accomplishing the basic learning activities can be exhausting for these children. They will also have a greater need for parental assistance in all areas of life over the course of their lifespan. Parents will need assistance in managing these tasks without fears of infantilizing their children (Rourke 1985) or making them overly dependent. Professionals can and must help parents recognize the appropriateness of parental intervention and involvement (Whitney, 2000).

Professionals should teach parents to understand why their children are vulnerable so that they can advocate for their children. Armed with knowledge, parents can correct the ignorance that often fuels criticism. Martin (2007) cautioned that it takes a great deal of time for parents to act as their child’s mediator to the world, but that is an important part of ensuring that the burden of advocating is not solely on the child.

Miranda Melcher is an expert on neurodiverse inclusive education and co-author of the book NVLD and Developmental Visual-Spatial Disorder in Children.


Broitman & Davis, (2013). Treating NVLD in Children: Professional Collaborations for Positive Outcomes, Springer

Broitman, J., Melcher, M., Margolis, A., & Davis, J. M. (2020). NVLD and Developmental Visual-Spatial Disorder in Children. Clinical guide to assessment and treatment. Springer

Margolis and Broitman, (2023) Learning Disorders Across the Lifespan: A Mental Health Framework, Springer

Martin, M. (2007). Helping children with nonverbal learning disabilities to flourish. London: Jessica Kingsley.

Matte, R. R., & Bolaski, J. A. (1998). Nonverbal learning disabilities: An overview. Intervention in School & Clinic, 34(1), 39–43.

Rourke, B. P. (1995). The NLD syndrome and the white matter model. In B. P. Rourke (Ed.), Syndrome of nonverbal learning disabilities: Neurodevelopmental manifestations (pp. 1–27). New York: Guilford Press.

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