My extended family doesn’t believe in learning and thinking differences. What should I do?


Help! My mother doesn’t “believe” in learning and thinking differences. What can I do?


“Oh, it’s only a stage. He’ll grow out of it.” Have you heard that line before? Or maybe you overheard a relative whisper something like, “She has such a hard time controlling that child.”

As a psychologist, I’ve been asked many times, “Aren’t boys supposed to be rambunctious?” These comments or any form of disapproval or disbelief from friends or family may feel quite disheartening. This is particularly true when you know the facts about learning and thinking differences and the other person may not.

When faced with comments like these, take a deep a breath and try not to be defensive. Instead, try to talk with your mother or whoever is doubting you. Keep in mind that this person may be coming from a well-intentioned place. She may not want to see flaws in your child.

Sometimes generational differences can be a factor. Learning and thinking differences like may not have been discussed very much when you were a kid. There may also be an element of denial. Maybe your child’s challenges remind your mother of her own learning challenges. Perhaps she feels guilty for not recognizing that one of her kids struggled with learning and thinking differences. Sometimes blaming your parenting skills is just easier than trying to understand.

You may never know why your mother doesn’t believe you. But you can still move forward in a way that will be helpful for your child.

Establish common ground.

Many people are unfamiliar with learning and thinking differences. Try to relate to whoever is doubting you by talking about when you first learned about these things: “I didn’t know much about learning and thinking differences when I was growing up. The only boy I knew who had a learning difference wasn’t in our class for most of the day. I remember seeing one class in the basement for children with special needs.” Then talk about how much has changed since you were a kid.

Today schools try to keep children in regular classrooms as much as possible. Researchers know a lot more about the best ways to teach kids with learning and thinking differences. There are even special schools popping up that are just for kids with and other learning differences. Explain that learning and thinking differences are very common.

Reassure your mom that these advances in science and technology are good things. A few decades ago, a lot of kids slipped through the cracks and suffered in silence. Or they were mislabeled as bad students. Now kids are getting the help they need and can succeed!

Explain that learning and thinking differences are not a sign of low intelligence. Mention a few famous people who have learning and thinking differences, including Oscar-winning director Steven Spielberg (dyslexia) and Michael Phelps (ADHD).

Bring reinforcement.

Offer to take your mother to the next meeting with your child’s doctor, teacher, or learning specialist. It might be easier for her to accept information that’s coming from a neutral party. You can also encourage her to read about learning and thinking differences online.

Focus on your child.

Remind your mom or anyone else who’s doubting or undermining you that the best thing for your child is to feel loved and supported.

Be sure your mom knows that there’s nothing either of you could have done to prevent your child’s learning and thinking differences. Stress the importance of your mother’s role in your child’s life — how much influence she has. Your child will need her love and support as they grow up and become more self-aware of their challenges.

There’s clear evidence that families who embrace a child’s strengths and weaknesses have a higher chance of bolstering self-confidence and self-esteem than families who are not as supportive.

Lastly, make it clear that with the right kinds of help, your child can be happy and successful. Talk about how learning and thinking differences are real conditions. Just as your mom wouldn’t ignore a child with diabetes or a broken leg, she needs to take these seemingly invisible conditions just as seriously.

About the author

About the author

Laura Tagliareni, PhD is a pediatric neuropsychologist in New York City and a clinical instructor at NYU Langone Medical Center.


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