Feeling victimized

My Teen Blames His Bad Behavior on His Learning Issues. What Should I Do?

By Child Mind Institute, Understood Founding Partner

My teen now blames all of his bad behavior on his learning disability. What should I do?

There are times when your teenager is probably going to want to make you tear your hair out. But stop and take a breath—or ten—and then try standing in your son’s sneakers for a moment.

Navigating the treacherous landscape of high school is difficult enough for teens who are confident and self-assured. Now add to that difficulty the burden of being somehow “different”—especially if that difference comes in the form of learning challenges that can make you feel somehow “less” than your peers.

You can imagine what your son might be feeling when he uses his learning disability as an excuse. Everything may seem extra-hard for him, and he feels he deserves a break.

He does deserve a break, but not in the form of excusing bad behavior.

If your teen is misbehaving and blaming his actions on his learning disability, there’s a chance he may be suffering. Acting out is his way of letting you know it. Start by listening. Tell him you really want to understand how he’s feeling, and do anything you can to help. But let him know that he can’t use his learning disorder as an excuse for breaking rules or blowing off his responsibilities.

Handling the Pressure

In general, kids with learning disabilities (LD) may be less prepared than their peers to handle the stress and increased responsibilities that come with high school.

Kids who have LD frequently have less self-confidence. “The foundation might be a little shaky as they enter into their teenage years,” says Dr. Matt Cruger, a neuropsychologist at the Child Mind Institute who specializes in learning issues. “So it’s reasonable that they might find this new stage of their development more challenging because of their learning struggles.”

Is that a reason for misbehaving? Lack of self-confidence might lead a teen with LD to behave in a way that is off-putting to others. Or he might adopt the role of class clown as a way of attracting attention and seeking positive reinforcement from his classmates.

“He may be looking for other outlets for his energy since academics aren’t working out,” says Dr. Mike Rosenthal, a pediatric neuropsychologist at the Child Mind Institute, “and that can take you into certain behaviors that are problematic. So a learning disability is not an excuse for bad behavior, but it’s certainly a risk factor for a number of things.”

Some “bad behavior” that could be linked to learning disabilities include:

  • Not getting homework in on time
  • Cutting classes or missing school
  • Acting out because he might feel “stupid” or because he is being teased or bullied

However a learning disability does not make your kid misbehave. It can’t be an excuse he uses for a specific thing that he’s done wrong.

The Importance of Expectations

One thing that doesn’t help kids with LD is lowering your expectations for their behavior. If your son is missing his curfew or not doing chores or treating his siblings badly, he needs to know you won’t cut him any special slack. That would communicate that you don’t think he can get past his limitations, and gives him permission not to try.

David Flink, founder of Project Eye to Eye, a mentoring program for kids with LD, argues that your high standards are important to help kids set high standards for themselves. Struggling to meet difficult challenges is important for kids with LD, he says, even if it sometimes results in failure. That failure can be a valuable learning experience. “For one thing, it’s good to learn what you’re not good at,” he explains, “and find ways to exploit what you are good at.”

That doesn’t mean you have to be unsympathetic if he feels his life is tough. Having LD does make for a unique set of challenges. It’s important to take the time to understand how he feels.

But let him know that you think it’s important to learn how to meet challenges, that you’re confident that he can do it and you’re there to help.

Dos and Don’ts

  • Do talk about how he’s feeling. You want to build an honest connection so he feels supported.
  • Don’t make exceptions to the rules for him. It’s the wrong lesson to teach him.
  • Do ask what you can do to minimize the struggles that his condition causes for him.
  • Don’t cut him slack at home, particularly if he has siblings who don’t get cut the same slack.
  • Do focus on getting him what he needs to succeed in school—tutoring, accommodations, alternate ways to learn, etc.
  • Do encourage him to learn how he learns best—he’s the one who knows what works best for him.
  • Do be consistent and follow through on rules you make and consequences if he breaks them.
  • Do help him find other ways he can feel good about himself, like sports, clubs, and extracurriculars. Finding things he's good at can build confidence.

It can be hard when you see a teenager struggling, and you’d like to make his life easier for him. But you won’t be doing him any favors by cutting him slack or making exceptions just because he has a learning disability. Good parenting means being supportive and sympathetic, but also making rules and sticking to them. Your kid will be happier and so will you.

About the Author

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Child Mind Institute, Understood Founding Partner is dedicated to transforming mental health care for children everywhere.

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