Monday, March 11, 2013

Coping Strategies for Children with Learning Disabilities: Enhancing Skills for Success in Life


By Annie Stuart

The secret to success seems elusive to many people. Is there really a reliable roadmap to health and happiness? And if you have a learning disability (LD), do you need take a different course? Not really. Although research has identified several attributes that form the foundation of life success for people with LD, you'll likely recognize the universal relevance of many of these traits, such as perseverance and proactivity. Another is the use of healthy coping strategies, the topic of this article.

Here are six things to keep in mind as you teach your child with LD how to navigate the ups and downs of his or her own emotional terrain.

1. Get your own house in order. If you're anxious about your child's learning disability, if you're fearful about his or her future, if you find yourself tearing your hair out every time you turn around, then you may need to first take a look at your own coping strategies. How do you handle stress? What messages are you sending yourself about your parenting skills? What kind of support system do you have in place?

If you learn to relax and better address your own emotional challenges, you'll be doing yourself and your whole family a big favor. Remember the flight attendant's advice: Put the oxygen mask on yourself before you put it on your child. Doing so helps you to breathe, to accept your child's differences, and to build on his or her strengths. Yes, it's true a child with LD may never be a great reader, but many successful people – from Greg Louganis to Whoopi Goldberg to Richard Branson – have had LD and they've done just fine – in fact, better than fine.

2. Use and teach a vocabulary of emotions. You want your child to know what it means to have empathy for others or to demonstrate gratitude or to savor nature's beauty. In addition to modeling behaviors like these, name and praise these positive behaviors when you see them in your child. This will help cultivate a sense of emotional awareness and sensitivity.

Likewise, kids need to also know how to name negative emotions. Ask what stress feels like for them, where they notice it in their bodies, and what they think might have caused it. This isn't always an easy exercise, particularly for a child with language-processing issues, says Chris Schnieders, Ph.D., director of teacher training at the Frostig School. It takes some work to figure this all out, and that's where a parent’s gentle questioning and calm explanations can make a difference.

3. Recognize — and trip up the triggers. The better your child gets at recognizing stress triggers, the more successful he or she will be at handling life's curve balls. Research underscores this point, says Frostig researcher Roberta J. Goldberg, Ph.D. All children in the Frostig success studies1,2 had been greatly challenged by anxiety or stress — largely as a result of LD, she says. "But the ones who recognized stress triggers, especially of LD, and demonstrated coping strategies were the most successful."

Goldberg admits that it can be difficult to know how to help your child identify his or her own triggers, but with time, he can recognize the signs. Do you know what your child's triggers are? Being asked to turn off the TV? Making transitions from one activity to another? Getting stuck on a math problem? Talk about these with your child and problem solve ways to "cut them off at the pass" — before your child's stress hormones go into overdrive. If the problem is television or transitions, maybe you agree on five-minute warnings before turning off the TV or you make sure your child has plenty of down time between activities.

What about your child's coping mechanisms? You'd be surprised at how much your child has intuitively figured out. Help support healthy ways of coping. It's idiosyncratic, says Goldberg, so the options are practically unlimited. Is music soothing to your child? Then listening to an iPod may not be an idle activity — even when doing homework. Does your child enjoy texting friends? Well, then those messages — within limits — might bring a helpful distraction. Or maybe writing in a journal or a walk in the woods has a calming effect on your child.

Look for signs of stress and intervene when your child is unable to do this for herself. If she's been hitting the books for two hours and is starting to unravel, you might want to enforce a trampoline break, or jumping jacks, or at the very least, some deep breathing.

"My son — who's now a mechanical engineer — struggled in school and had meltdowns in college," says Goldberg. "I didn't say, 'Go study.' I'd tell him to go for a run or swim 22 laps. I knew those were his coping mechanisms."

And, don't forget to play to your child's strengths. If sports, music, or theatre is his strong suit, then allowing time for these pursuits can greatly enhance self-confidence and positive coping behaviors.

4. Make coping strategies concrete. If your child struggles with developing specific coping mechanisms, try priming the pump with some questions like these:

  • If you were having a problem, who would you talk to?
  • What are the fun things or activities that you like to do when you are sad or down?
  • What motivates you? In other words, why do you do what you do?
  • How do you handle peer pressure? For example, what would you do if a friend or peer asked you to try drugs?
  • Who are your role models or people you look up to?

Depending upon your child's age and personality, don't necessarily expect (or request) a direct answer to these questions. You can simply throw these out as food for thought. This may help your child describe and acknowledge — if only to himself — what works best for him. And this will take him a step closer to actually using these concrete strategies.

5. Learn healthy ways to communicate. Jeff Rice is principal of one of the Briarwood Schools in Houston, TX, serving students with LD and developmental delays. He reminds parents that the normal teen mentality is to interact as little as possible with adults, especially parents. "It may seem like you've got a stranger living in your home, but trust me, they will come around," says Rice. And, he tells parents they'd be amazed if they knew how often kids identify parents as their "go-to person" in times of trouble.

Rice suggests tips like these for moving toward healthier communication with kids.

  • Ask open-ended questions. Don't be satisfied with the curtness of a yes-no response from your child. You can get around this by asking open-ended questions like: What was the most surprising thing that happened at school today? Or: What was the school assembly all about? Or: What was something you did to manage your stress? A longer response provides a better opening for give and take. Without lecturing, you're also modeling the art of conversation. Just remember that with open-ended questions, you'll also need to stay open — without judgment — to your child's fears, frustrations, and failures.
  • Be present. Even more important than questioning is simply being present and listening. When your child is talking with you, don't get distracted by opening bills or checking your phone messages. If you do, you're communicating — without saying a word — that something else is more important. And, though there's a place for "history lessons," don't always cut in with responses like, "Well, when I was a kid…." Checking in and displaying empathic listening can often go so much further.
  • Reflect back what your child says. Restate what your child has said, in his or her own words — not yours. You might say: "What I'm understanding is that you felt bullied today at lunch…." Again, this helps your child feel heard and understood.

6. Seek outside help when needed. Remember that a big part of having a healthy coping strategy is knowing how to find and use support systems. For example, if your child is falling behind in math, a tutor may help in more ways than one — by not only shoring up academic weak links, but also circumventing power struggles over homework. And, if your child struggles with anxiety or depression, seeking outside resources such as counseling may be in order. Remember that you cannot be all things to your child.

Help your child identify both internal and external sources of support for better coping. And, do the same for yourself. This can be critical for developing a healthy approach to emotional challenges — which, as you know, won't disappear with adulthood!


1 Raskind, M.H. et al. Learning Disabilities Research and Practice. 1999; 14(1): 35–49.
2 Goldberg, R.J. et al. Learning Disabilities Research and Practice. 2003; 18(4): 222–236.

Annie Stuart is a freelance writer and editor with nearly 25 years of experience. She specializes in consumer health, parenting, and learning disabilities, among other areas.

This article is made possible by a grant from the American Legion Child Welfare Foundation.

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