Discussing Learning Differences with Your Kids

Ugh. A learning difference diagnosis brings up so many emotions for parents. We start thinking about how this will impact our children long-term and get into a cycle of fear and guessing. In addition, we worried about how to even discuss our children’s differences with them, or even when/if it was appropriate. I’ve been there and of course I consulted way too many academic journal articles, and got even deeper in confusion. 
 
I will say this: how you talk to your child matters. I still remember bits and pieces of what was said to me as a child, especially the critical words from teachers. Your children will carry these with them, too. So let your words and attitude be of support and strength. Often times, kids will feel like they are “just plain stupid” or unable to keep up with their peers. Research has also revealed that kids who lack an understanding of their differences often have higher rates of depression or anxiety disorders. It’s not hard to guess why. 
 
But how do you introduce these topics to your child? Make sure you do it during a low-stress time. (Summers are great for these discussions.) I also recommend breaking it into bite-size chunks that your child can understand; it’s not a one-time conversation. In fact, it is important to make sure your children know that they can talk to you about their fears and concerns anytime. Often, children will express they don’t want to go to school, that they hate school, or that their teacher “picks on them.” (Or that their tummies hurt or any combination of physical symptoms.) It’s important to have empathy as they aren’t just being difficult; children can feel overwhelmed in school settings and need reassurance, someone to listen to their troubles and remind them that the can do hard things. (This is a great reminder to take the time to continually build resiliency skills in your children, despite whether they are currently struggling or not.) 
 
In my opinion, I think it’s helpful to include the following: 
  1. Our brains are all unique. They are wired differently.  I use highways and cars as an example to explain this concept. Our brains have highways (our neural networks) and the cars in our brains transport information all over. Now let’s say there is a traffic jam somewhere. You have to find a way around to get to where you’re going. It might take longer but you get there.
  2. We all have different strengths and weaknesses. While some people can be great a memorization or math, we all have strengths that make us special. 
  3. Each individual’s unique difficulties don’t need to define them. Help your children identify and value their strengths. We are more than our problems. (This is helpful for parents to remember in the thick of it.)
  4. We are never alone in our journey.  In my own family, my son often came home and reported that he couldn’t keep up with the games at recess. (Thanks to executive processing issues!) As a result, he was asked not to participate (this is a nice way of saying it) by the other kids. He was devastated. The best thing for him was to know that he wasn’t alone. We discussed my struggles as a child and talked about other people we knew with similar strengths. Reading Rick Riordan’s books about Percy Jackson really helped normalize differences for him and helped him recognize his own super powers, even if they don’t include playing basketball on the playground with the other kids. 

For parents, speaking with your children about their differences can be overwhelming at first. But I promise you that having the courage to do so will give your children a boost as well. They will know that you are there for them. Please understand that these conversations will evolve over time, as your child grows and develops and learns more about themselves and how they show up in the world. It can be so powerful (and painful at times) to watch, but we were given these special children to raise and love. So here’s to more grace and acceptance. 


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