LD Is a Family Affair


We have three children, the youngest of whom was recently diagnosed with Learning Disabilities. I’m concerned about how her diagnosis will impact the other children, and particularly, what we can do to minimize problems as they all get older.        

 JD, New York, NY

Ask the Experts

Lisa Rappaport, Ph.D and Jill Harkavy-Friedman, Ph.D

Lisa Rappaport is a neuropsychologist, specializing in the treatment of children with LD, ADHD, and developmental disorders. She is also an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Jill Harkavy-Friedman is a clinical psychologist and Vice President of Research, AFSP

When a child has LD (or any special needs), it’s important to recognize the potential impact such a diagnosis may have on the family, especially siblings. Following are some guidelines that will help foster love and respect, while minimizing contention and competition among all your children.

Recognize strengths and challenges

Siblings tend to have compassion and respect for one another when they understand each family member’s strengths and challenges. When you talk about your daughter’s LD, it’s important to provide a simple description and even a label to help her siblings develop an empathic understanding of their sister. Describe her strengths as well as her challenges. Knowledge can lead to acceptance. When one sibling has strengths that another doesn’t, you can help both of them in a loving, non-competitive way to appreciate each other.

While siblings can support and help each other, remember that the ultimate responsibility for supporting each child lies with you, the parents. Secrets generate embarrassment and fear. If the affected child and her family understand each other’s strengths and challenges, self-esteem is fostered and even humor is possible.

Celebrate everyone’s accomplishments

Every child in the family deserves recognition for their individual achievements. Just as the child with LD should be celebrated for her accomplishments, so too should her non-LD siblings. They need not hide or play down their accomplishments for fear they will outshine their sister. It’s not about equivalence; it’s about appreciation of everyone’s achievements.

Special time for everyone

Siblings with LD often require more time and attention from their parents. This attention is often related to schoolwork and can raise stress levels in the home. Siblings may feel left out, jealous, or grateful that they are not the targets of their parents’ frustration. It is important for parents to build in fun time and work time with each child. Remember reading time for each child (family reading time might be a fun option). The goal is not equal time for everyone; rather it’s quality time for all.

Keeping the peace

With differing expectations, it’s easy to have uneven disciplinary approaches and consequences. In addition to the complexity that LD adds, age and developmental level play a role in determining expectations and consequences. Anything that teaches a child how to improve their behavior increases the likelihood of more effective behavior. When consequences are age- and person-appropriate, there’s a better chance that all children will feel that discipline is fair.

Please remember punishment fails to provide improved behavior and tends to engender fear and aggression; teaching positive behavior and rewarding such behavior when it occurs goes a long way toward achieving the outcomes you’re hoping for. Often, the most important consequence is that the child knows that she is loved and respected, and that expectations are achievable.

Your family is a team

Siblings can be champions for each other. Realistic expectations can be nourished by communication and appreciation for each child’s strengths and challenges. Humor and hugs play an important role in the development of self-esteem and confidence for all family members. 

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