Family Dynamics: in Families with Children with Learning Differences

In early March, Dr. Michael Pastor  PhD, MFT was a guest speaker at PEN.  The title of his talk was Family Dynamics in Families with Children with Learning Differences. Dr.  Pastor has worked with children, adolescents and families in his psychotherapy  practice in San Francisco for over twenty years. In addition, he is currently Upper School Counselor at San Francisco Day School.

At the outset Dr.  Pastor said that the goal for a parent with a child who has a learning difference  is to ensure that through the child’s young and adolescent years he/she feels  loved, accepted, safe and understood.  (I,  Ann, the blog  writer) think probably the  latter, being understood, is the biggest challenge.  For the child and most often the parents  don’t know why the child is struggling.  I know this was my parents biggest dilemma  when I was a child.)

When a child is  struggling Dr. Pastor re-enforced the importance that parents find ways to have fun with their child even though it may not be easy.  Why?  You want him or her to remember holidays and trips – maybe simply going  to the beach.  You don’t want your child  to simply remember the struggle.  He  quoted Jane M. Healy, PhD whose book Different  Learners as a good source on this topic.  Remember: the family we grow up in is the most  important environment for a child.

He moved on to some basic considerations for  parents:

  • If your child is having problems, don’t be one of those parents who just thinks that things will get better on their own.  In most cases this is not the truth.
  • Parents get shocked at the complexity and expense of the solutions and  often decide to let go the step of an evaluation.  This is not helping your child.  You  may find yourself, like other parents have, that you feel relief when learning the results of the tests. Finally there is a way to improve the situation.
  • Some parents find it hard to  hear the results – that their child has problems. And, now they have more to  handle which might include the recommendation of medications, or a tutor, or possibly a psychologist.  All of this costs money.
  • Some parents feel guilty feeling  they should have addressed this issue earlier. They might also sense it’s genetic  and feel guilt for having passed it on. Dr. Pastor pointed out that if these  feelings are buried and not expressed they will leak out in other ways – anger,  fear, even rage.
  • Some parents feel a deep sense  of disappointment.  Their vision of their child being successful in the way they had outlined doesn’t now seem possible.  It’s important to admit this feeling so it doesn’t become toxic.
  • Parents need to develop a new level of dialogue with each other. If this skill is not in place the service of a  therapist may be wise.
  • One of the first decisions parents will need to make is who will take the leadership in obtaining for the child what is required.  Most often it’s the wife. And,  down the road, anger can build up within the wife for carrying this load. And, it’s not uncommon that the dad’s point of view becomes:  “If the child only tried harder.”Remember while parents may be  disappointed, it is the child who has to deal with the learning challenge.  The parents need to find a way to convince the child that they “aren’t lesser than”, especially in context of their peers. One of the new phraseologies “learning differences” can take the heat off the topic and an explanation that some people have different kinds of brains can give the  child something to express to both themselves and others.   Remember. the conditions of anxiety,  depression and low self esteem are more prevalent with children with learning disabilities.  Learning challenged kids come to expect that they will fail  (That certainly was my expectation with French which being Canadian I had to take through school and university). So, there are both the neurological and psychological issues to handle with the child.
  • Parents need to find a way to help the child not decide that life consists only of being forced to do what you don’t want to do.
  • If there are siblings, they often find the learning challenged sibling a pain. The sibling deals with it by being a good child but harbors secret resentments.
  • And, the learning  challenged child will be jealous of the sibling because they seem to have a  much easier life. Remember, children are like sponges, they absorb everything.  They pick up what parents are believing and how they are behaving.  One caution:  Dr. Pastor  recommends that you don’t tell the sibling not to tell others.  That will backfire in ways unexpected.
  • When things don’t make sense, parents  look for help and discover that the  process of identifying professionals is not easy.  The person(s) chosen need to fit both the parent’s and the child’s requirements.
  • Parents begin to see that they have to choose when to be firm and when to let an issue go.  Sometimes letting it  go makes sense because, above all else, you want to preserve your relationship with your child.  While you are making the decision the parent needs to assess: is this behavior something unusual?  If yes, letting go might make sense.  The result could be the child might feel: finally my parent gets me.  The fall out with  siblings in that situation is resentment. The child with the learning difference gets more attention.  The core solution in a family is good communication within the family.  Each person listens to each other.  Then, when a reaction happens it is more easy to talk to the child.
  • Remember, Dr. Pastor cautioned, you can only talk to a child at their developmental level.  If the child is three and misbehaving, you might say:

“I am going to try to help you stay out of being sent to your room”  and then give them an explanation waiting to see what they have to say.  Often the  child feels better simply because “mummy” listens to me.  Another suggestion Dr. Pastor gave was to say  to the child:  ” I need time to think over what you are asking.” However,  the parent needs to respond not too much later or resentment will build up.  Whatever decision you take the sibling will think it’s unfair.  If this happens, be sure to talk to  the sibling about it.  And the reason is: the sibling might think your avoidance means there is something really wrong.  They will hear “this is so bad it can’t be talked about.”  And, it may have some truth for the parents because they are so ashamed which then means that the parents have a challenge of working out this shame between themselves.

In summary, Dr. Pastor feels the behaviors of the learning challenged child and siblings all starts with the parents behaviors.  He stated that there are  nearly twice as many divorces in families who have children with learning differences.   He cautions: The parents are adults and have to adjust to their children.  There is no question that raising healthy children is difficult.   Some come out of the womb energetic and hyperactive, while others are quiet.  It’s a matter of the parents adjusting to whatever is.


Depression, Anxiety and Learning

In early December PEN (Parents Education Network) hosted two speakers from the Abbey Neuropsychology Clinic,  Richard D. Abbey, Ph.D., Clinical Neuropsychologist and Diana Barrett, Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist. Their focus  was three complex issues: Depression, Anxiety and Learning. I was impressed with the ease that these two specialists shared the podium as they imparted their expertise. A more detailed background on both speakers can be found at the conclusion of this blog.

They began their morning talk with a focus on depression, advising us that it appears differently with children and adults.   For a child, irritability is a key element.  They become very edgy and display a lack of interest in something that they previously very much enjoyed, walking away from any involvement with it or others. Whereas a tip the speakers provided to indicate whether an adolescent might be in a depressed state is sleeping till noon or complaining about a tummy ache. These are safer ways for an adolescent to express depression.  If there evolves a pre-occupation with poetry whose topic is life threatening, it could mean the adolescent is exploring the possibility.  The challenge for a parent is discovering whether the comments are simply anxiety which interferes with a child’s functioning or whether the issue comes from a depressed state.

Often depression comes when there is a problem with learning. This causes emotional issues. Ask yourself the question: are the emotional issues out of control?  Or is depression causing a learning problem? It is clear that when a child, adolescent or adult is depressed, this state interferes with other and important daily functions.

The frontal lobe of the brain is where Executive Functioning (ie: skill building) occurs. It can be one of the first segments of the brain affected by depression or anxiety. Kids who can’t keep information being taught in their mind are offering a good clue that this skill is not working well.  Perhaps the school teachers are unable to track the child’s reading skills which can result in their teaching approach not matching the way the child learns. When a student hears from a teacher: “try a little harder”  or, “we just told you” when they are not doing what is being asked, more than likely the child/adolescent internalizes, “I am stupid.”  This can lead to depression.

There is another clue:  Is the student taking a long time to accomplish a task, especially if there is sequence of tasks to accomplish with the project. This inability can lead to the student getting caught up in right and wrong.  And, then they begin to say to themselves if I can’t do it perfectly I am not going to do it at all.  Their anxiety becomes dominant.

These are some questions the speakers provided to begin assessing whether your child/adolescent is experiencing anxiety or depression:

1. Is anything significantly different in any domain of your child’s life?

2. Is their day to day functioning different from the norm?

3. Does the child have a problem reading aloud. Do they lose their place, skipping
words or replacing words?

4. With Executive Functioning: is there a switching of letters and numbers? Can they sort out a lot of information being taught? does their attention keep varying?

5. Are you concerned that your child may not be safe?

There are solutions/interventions to these tell tale signs:  A few are listed below.

1. Professional emotional and learning assessments to diagnose what is happening with your child.

2. Cognitive Behavior Therapy. The process focuses on solving problems concerning dysfunctional emotions, behaviors and cognitions:  I looked up the word “cognitive” on Wikipedia for a definition. It refers to the following skills: attention, remembering, producing and understanding language, solving problems, and making decisions. The speakers had some good news about the effectiveness of Cognitive Behavior Therapy confirming that 75% of the time there is some kind of improvement with anxiety and depression.

3. Medications:  The speakers did not spend much time on this topic. They did comment that kids on medication do seem to have a working memory problem.  This is a controversial issue which has been discussed at PEN many times.  See former PEN and Emotion blogs within my various blogs for more information.

3. Reading interventions.  The speakers cautioned parents to undertake due diligence before taking action.  Some therapies only look at a part of the problem – which may or may not be appropriate for your child.  For an overview the speakers recommend using the National Reading Panel.  http://www.nationalreadingpanel.org.

4. Executive Functioning Coaching.  The need for this skill may not present itself until college level.  When it does, coaching is very important.  Each person needs to learn
how to plan, how to live with goal oriented behavior.

5. Software:  These speakers were promoting the use of a Pulse Pen.   It records what is being said and relieves the need for the listener to take notes.  They also mentioned the Intel Reader which was discussed in more detail in the previous PEN blog.

6. Cogmed:  This process helps improve working memory, expand attention and executive functioning.   http://www.cogmed.com/about-working-memory

7. What to do at home:  Adjust expectations of your child:  Set realistic goals. schedule free time along with time with you, the parent.  Have a listening ear, find a way to bring up the topic you want to discuss or to hear more about from them.

8 School:  School placement is very important.  See previous PEN blogs on this topic.

These speakers gave me a giggle when they said:  We have never spoken to a parent who didn’t think that they were right.  A part of me, Ann, who is writing this blog and is not a parent, sees that part of needing to be right in myself.  It takes time to undo that belief. If you, as parent are so challenged, give yourself time to learn more about the topic. Yes, I know sometimes that’s a difficult step for a parent to take. Our ego can make it difficult for us to accept there is a learning challenge. Your goal is to keep the best interests of the child to the fore. Here’s a sobering comment made by the speakers. There is evidence now that if one parent experiences depression, the risk for the child developing depression goes up. So, if you as parent experience the same issues as the child, the speakers said it helps the child if the parents also do the interventions.

The speakers urged the parents to go to gatherings, like EdRev in San Francisco, a yearly event produced by PEN which occurs at the Giant’s Baseball Park.  Here parents can intermingle with hundreds of other parents and learning specialists and Depression, ansietydiscover ways to increase their knowledge base on the issues facing their child.

Remember, the brain is neuroplastic, it can and does change!


The speakers were:

Dr.Richard Abbey is a clinical neuropsychologist who specializes in assessment,  diagnosis, and treatment of ADHD, learning disorders, and other neurocognitive and emotional conditions. Prior to opening the Abbey Neuropsychology Clinic in Palo Alto, Dr. Abbey was a clinical faculty member at Stanford University School of Medicine/Lucille Packard Hospital. His areas of specialty include ADHD (and non-medication based interventions for ADHD), learning disorders, pediatric brain tumors, autism, and treatment of neurocognitive deficits.

Diana Marchetti Barret, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist who assesses and diagnoses  learning disorders, developmental disorders (e.g. autism, aspergers), mood disorders, and ADHD. Dr. Barrett completed post-graduate work at the University of Utah Neuropsychiatric Institute and post doctorate training at Stanford University School of Medicine, Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Dr. Barrett also has specialty training in Motivational Interviewing, Dialectical Behavior Therapy, non-medication treatment for ADHD, and Pivotal Response Training (PRT) for Autism Spectrum Disorders.

The speakers can be reached through:  Abbey NeuroPsychological Clinic located in Palo Alto, CA.  They offer ccomprehensive neuropsychological evaluations for infants, children, and adults.  http://www.abbeyneuropsychologyclinic.com

Hyperlexia: My journey to understanding the condition.

Hyperlexia:  My journey to understanding the condition.

Most parents whose children have a learning challenge look at me with a blank stare when I mention the term Hyperlexia. The same seems to be true with the professionals working in the learning disability field.

Why am I concerned you may ask. I am hyperlexic and I don’t want youngsters (or oldsters, as a matter of fact) to be mis-diagnosed or partially diagnosed as I was twenty years ago. It frequently happens.  When the tester or the learning disability specialist isn’t aware of hyperlexia they lump the child or adult into the dyslexic category. Why?  Both hyperlexia and dyslexia are conditions that affect reading.

Let’s review. Dyslexia means one has a hard time reading words, sounding them out and probably has a poor vocabulary. On the other hand, hyperlexia describes an individual who has difficulty comprehending what they are reading because the individual is not capable of imaging the words they are reading.

Here’s an example.  If someone says: the cat has a pink tail that wiggles, a hyperlexic sees the words but not the images of the cat. Imaging gets much more challenging with complex words.

I was diagnosed as dyslexic twenty-five years ago when in my forties. The testing office said there was nothing that could be done.  I began searching. I discovered quite quickly that I had mastered sounding out words, reading words, and knew I had an excellent vocabulary. It made me wonder.  Why am I a dyslexic?  No one had a response.  I decided that the problem was psychological and embarked on several years of inner exploration.  And, I was advised to remove refined sugar from my diet.  Both the psychological work and the elimination of refined sugar improved my condition some.

In my mid-sixties I attended a lecture given by Nanci Bell of Lindamood-Bell who described the differences between dyslexia and Hyperlexia.  I knew immediately that I was Hyperlexic. Yes, comprehension was my problem. Testing at Lindamood-Bell revealed I had Grade Three reading comprehension skills (and I graduated from the Yale University Drama School).

Parents:  here are some tricks that we, hyperlexics, use to mask our condition:

  • When we are talking with another and we don’t understand what is being said we change the subject, or we ask questions hoping that we will get it.
  • We talk in generalities.
  • We don’t remember what we see or hear and get the person to describe the scene again.
  • We use a word, phrase or sentence hoping we are close to what is being demanded.
  • We take a long time to get a word.  I find people get impatient waiting for me to say what I know so I will jump in with a phrase praying I am close rather than waiting for the word to come.

Skills a hyperlexic has that makes expressing ourselves difficult for us:

  • We are very good at FEELING the whole picture of what is going on in a situation. These feelings can be difficult to verbalize sometimes because:
  1. We don’t safe in describing what we see.
  2. There is so much jumbled in our brain and feel we must rush so we make up phrases.  e.g. “There are one too many few.”  This was a phrase I said to a waitress when a teenager meaning –  there are too many of us and too few chairs.  This strange way of expressing myself began happening frequently. My parent began calling them Annisms.

Once I discovered the accurate diagnose I took three steps.

  1. I signed up for the verbalizing and visualizing training at Lindamood-Bell. http://www.lindamoodbell.com.  It was very difficult to learn how to image but I moved myself from Grade Three to Grade Nine reading comprehension level.
  2. I worked with the Masgutova Method to correct my reflexes that were not functioning correctly. http://masgutovamethod.com. An individual’s reflexes are developed while in utero and during the first three years of life.  I discovered that twelve of mine were not operating at optimal level (e.g.) I was unable to crawl when lying on the floor – my left side reflexes did not work.  I decided to combine my emotional issues with the reflex corrections. It was an arduous process but my reflexes corrected over a year and a half.
  3. Simultaneously I worked with a friend weekly on reading, utilizing the Lindamood-Bell techniques.  It was a painstaking process. Once my reflexes corrected themselves, my emotional behavior balanced itself and I became a more confident as a reader.  My friend was truly a saint.

In summary, comprehending what I read is still challenging. I have to be bold asking my friends to give me an image or images to describe a word they used when the meaning isn’t clear to me.

I hope my experience with Hyperlexia gives you some tools as you help your child or yourself with reading or aural comprehension. My wish is that the term Hyperlexia becomes a common phrase in the learning disability lexicon.  And, parents, when having your child tested be sure the testing officer is skilled in testing for hyperlexia.

For more information on my experience check out the article I wrote which is posted on this website.  http://dyslexiadiscovery.com/dyslexia-hyperlexia-and-beyond.