For a Child With Learning Differences, Making Home a Safe Harbor
Recently, a mother approached me for advice about how to support her daughter, who has learning differences. In a large family of children for whom most of school comes easily, with parents who could say the same about their own pasts, the little girl is often frustrated by comparing herself. Worse, the mother says, both the siblings and, sometimes, the parents, can (unintentionally) reveal their own frustration when the child can’t solve a problem or perform a task. Those moments threaten to erode her belief in herself and her abilities.
My first email was to Mona Delahooke, a psychologist who specializes in guiding families through the challenges of raising a neurologically atypical child. She replied: “I get this question a lot from parents of kids who have differences. The key here is to help parents shift their mindset from a natural, yet pervasive, notion that their child is being purposefully difficult, or that if the child just tried harder, they could do better. Their child doesn’t choose to have a hard time with homework or learning, it’s just that her learning style is different.”
Dr. Delahooke counsels families to acknowledge the elephant in the room, that a learning difference exists, and the challenges that learning difference creates — both for the child and her family — can be frustrating. Dr. Delahooke helps parents and siblings remember that when they do become frustrated, however, it’s important that everyone communicate from a place of empathy and compassion. Even young siblings can learn to validate their sister or brother with supportive sentiments such as, “That must be frustrating for you,” or “I get frustrated when I can’t remember a word, too.”
I also spoke with Katie Hurley, child and adolescent psychotherapist and author of “The Happy Kid Handbook.” Ms. Hurley wrote in an email that the best gift this mom can give all of her children is information. “If the other kids are rolling their eyes and becoming impatient, then that’s an issue of empathy, but knowledge helps,” she said. “If possible, find out what the ‘glitch’ is, and use that language; explain to her siblings what it means. When we are honest with kids, and say, ‘This is how your brain works, and this is how you learn best,’ we put kids back in the driver’s seat. We empower them to take an active role in their learning instead of feeling like a failure and an outcast.”
Ms. Hurley is backed up by the research of the Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck. In her research and in her book “Mindset” she has shown that when we maintain what she calls a “growth mindset” (the belief that learning and challenge change the brain by forming additional neural pathways, and that we are all in control of this process through our own efforts) we have a stronger belief in the power of our own efforts, exhibit fewer behaviors of helplessness, and make more constructive, positive choices in response to failure.
An entire family can benefit from adopting a growth mindset, and it can help everyone shift their thinking about the challenges one of them faces every day. We all have our own glitches and cognitive differences, after all, and benefit from empathy and compassion when we run up against a task that tests our patience or makes us doubt our abilities. It can be hard to cut ourselves slack when we get caught up in an endless loop of try, fail, repeat. Our family should be our allies in that struggle. Kids with learning differences are bombarded with subtle and overt messages of difference and shortcomings all day long, so home needs to be a safe harbor from that barrage.
In order to best support one child, the entire family needs to shift its focus away from her failings and toward her potential. Her differences are viewed all too often as negative, something that threatens her normalcy, but she likely possesses unique strengths as a result of those cognitive differences. As the authors of “The Dyslexic Advantage: Unlocking the Hidden Potential of the Dyslexic Brain” point out in the book’s opening pages, what some label as disability can also be viewed as advantage, given opportunity and context. We all possess disability and ability, and the difference between the two is often a matter of perspective.