As a clinical psychologist, I am often asked by parents, “How do I talk to my child about their learning/attentional/emotional difficulties?” This is a wonderful question. All too often, children with neurobehavioral difficulties may work regularly in a resource room, visit a psychologist, or receive help from a tutor without any explanation why. When children don’t have accurate information, they often construct their own interpretation and misconceptions may arise. For instance, the child with a learning disability may think, “I am stupid. I will never learn to read. Something is wrong with my brain.” We do children a disservice when we fail to “fill them in.” Positive, straightforward information provides a child with the tools he/she needs to understand and cope with a disability. While there’s no “right” or “wrong” way to have such conversations, here are some general guidelines that may be helpful.
1. Adapt your explanation to the age of the child
When deciding what to tell your child, be sensitive to their level of developmental and emotional maturity. Young children are very concrete in their thinking and handle information best when it is given to them in short, simple facts. Discuss specific, observable problems that the child is experiencing (e.g., trouble raising hand in class; difficulty remembering their alphabet letters). Older children and adolescents want and can understand more specific facts and information. Children should be encouraged to ask their own questions in order to clear up fears and misperceptions. The sooner you can provide supportive and accurate explanations for why your child is struggling in some areas, the less likely your child will develop negative misconceptions.
2. Talk about individual strengths and weaknesses
Talk to your child about the things he/she is good at and be specific about the things that are harder. Show him/her examples of schoolwork that illustrate both. Reference other significant people in a child’s life (e.g., “Your brother, Brian, is a really good swimmer, but he takes a long time to read a book. You’re a fast reader, but have trouble writing.”). Explain to your child that his/her difficulties are common and that there are other children in his/her class who require extra help (e.g., take medicine, talk to a psychologist, work with a tutor). As a parent, model how you celebrate your own strengths and embrace your weaknesses.
3. Have more than one conversation
Talking about a child’s neurobehavioral disorder should be an ongoing series of discussions, not just a single information giving session. Children need time to hear what is said and they process information differently as they grow older. Only give as much information as you believe your child can handle at a time. Be prepared to repeat information and explanations several times. Some information may be hard for children to accept or understand. Asking the same question over and over may also be a child’s way of seeking reassurance.
4. Enlist help
Parents need not be solely on their own in talking with children about their difficulties. Seek advice from the professional who conducted the assessment and knows your child. Encourage your child to talk to his or her teacher or mental health professional about any questions or concerns. Sometimes it is easier for children to express their feelings to someone outside the family. Inform teachers of what your child has been told. It can be very confusing to a child if the school has an interpretation that contradicts what the child and the parents believe. Obtain pamphlets, books and videotapes that you can share with your child. Reading books and watching videos together can help open up discussions of these important issues.
5. Plan for Treatment
Focus on the fact that your child can be helped. Let your child know all the different ways that you are going to help him/her to learn and/or feel better. Depending on your child’s age and maturity level, his/her understanding may be enhanced through the use of concrete examples. (e.g., Daddy needs glasses to help his eyes see better. You will go to a special teacher who will help you read better.”) Ask your child if he/she can think of ways to make their difficulties easier (e.g., “Can you think of anything that your teacher can do to help you if you’re feeling really frustrated in class?”) The more the child feels included, the more likely he/she is to cooperate. Adolescents should be taught how to advocate for their own specific learning needs.
Dr. Leslie Baer Cohen is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist who specializes in Early Childhood Development, assessment, school consultation and evaluation of preschoolers.