In early March 2012, 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.