If your child has learning and attention issues, he may hear about learning strengths or learning differences. If he gets a diagnosis, he may also hear the terms disability or disorder. It’s important to talk to your child about these terms. It’s equally important to hear what he’s thinking and feeling.
Here are some key things to consider when talking to your child about differences and disabilities. It’s important to be honest, supportive and clear in your conversation. And it’s good to use certain words and phrases that help your child better understand his learning or attention issues.
When to Talk to Your Child About Learning and Attention Issues
Don’t think of this as a one-time conversation. It’s really a series of talks that happen over time. The way you approach these subjects will have lasting impact on how your child sees himself and others.
The first conversation is just the beginning. As your child’s level of understanding changes and grows over time, so will your conversations. And an ongoing and open dialogue builds trust and helps your child with problem solving and self-advocacy.
Early on, it’s better to focus on talking to your child about learning and attention issues in ways he understands. Using clinical terms for his diagnosis can come later, when you feel it’s appropriate.
How You Can Respond to Your Child’s Concerns
Children of all ages are very observant. Even young kids know that there are some things that are easier for them to do than others. And they also know that among their friends, some kids excel at things that other kids have trouble doing.
These observations are a great place to start off your conversation. It’s important to explain that learning and attention issues are very common. You can say:
“Everyone has strengths and weaknesses.”
Talk to your child about what you’re really good at and what isn’t as easy for you. Then ask him what he’s good at and what is hard for him. Let your child know that we all have strengths and weaknesses, and give specific examples. Highlighting his strengths can make it easier for him to acknowledge his challenges.
When you explain how he learns differently, try to keep focus on strategies that can help. This can empower your child to use accommodations to work on things that challenge him.
“A disability is a difference.”
It’s important to explain to your child how the word disability is used. A disability is a difference that makes it difficult for someone to do something that others can do easily. For younger kids, it helps to use obvious examples.
For instance, your child might consider a person who uses a wheelchair disabled. Your child sees someone who can’t walk or stand. But it’s important to explain that the person in the wheelchair has a difference. And that difference means that person has difficulty in one area compared to others who don’t.
But that doesn’t mean that person has difficulty with everything. And it’s important to make that point to your child. When that person is doing something else, like playing video games or helping out with math homework, your child probably doesn’t think of the wheelchair at all.
“Some differences are easily seen, and others are not.”
It’s important to point out to your child that learning and attention issues aren’t always obvious. But they do show up in situations that can make things hard for your child.
To make this more clear to young children, you can use an example of someone who has reading issues. When a child isn’t reading out loud, the issue isn’t visible to others. But when he reads out loud in class, his difficulty may be more apparent. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist at other times—just that it’s not something people always see.
“Your challenges don’t define who you are.”
When your child is struggling, it can be easy to make his challenges a primary focus. It’s important that he knows his successes and interests say more about him than his challenges.
Point out your child’s strengths, using specific examples when possible. But don’t overdo it—kids can tell when praise is insincere.
You may also want to share stories of athletes, politicians, musicians, entrepreneurs and Oscar winners with learning and attention issues. It’s a good way to make the point that challenges don’t have to keep people from succeeding.
“You just think differently.”
Your child may worry that he’s “stupid” or that his brain is going to “get worse” over time. Talk to him about the idea of thinking differently. And don’t shy away from explaining the difference between learning disabilities and intellectual disabilities. Knowing the difference may reassure him. It’s also important for him to know that while he has a lifelong condition, with the right support things will get better—not worse.
“It’s OK to talk to me about your concerns.”
The most helpful thing you can do is listen to your child’s questions and concerns. Being empathetic and listening to what your child says is very important. It can lead to deeper discussions about obstacles and solutions. It can also help him feel like he can confide in you.
It’s good to respond in honest but reassuring ways. Saying things like, “I’m glad you asked that question” or “I know it can feel uncomfortable to talk about this” can help to put your child at ease about discussing sensitive topics.
Learn more ways to show empathy for your child.
More Ways to Help Your Child
It’s important to address any fears and anxiety your child may have about his issues. Kids with learning and attention issues often pick up on ways they differ from their peers. And struggling with schoolwork or with making friends can be hard on their self-esteem.
Your child may feel like he’s the only one who is facing challenges. But you can reassure him that many people learn differently. Mention to him that he probably even knows some kids in his class who have learning or attention issues.
It’s a good idea to share stories and videos of other kids who have talked about how they’ve handled their learning and attention issues. And reassure your child that you and the teacher will put things into place to make life easier at home and at school.
Get specific tips on talking to your child about slow processing speed. Learn what not to say to your child about ADHD, dyslexia, dysgraphia or dyspraxia. And discover ways to respond when your child is frustrated or if he doesn’t want to go to school.
Talking to your child may not be easy, but it’s an important way to begin reducing stigma. Learn ways to start conversations with teachers and with family, too. And find support from parents like you in our online community.