Strategies for Parenting a Child with NLD

By Marcia Eckerd, Ph.D.

At a glance

Challenges for parents of children with NLD include learning to manage inflexibility, preventing meltdowns, and navigating social awkwardness • Successful parenting strategies include communicating clearly, previewing situations, anticipating frustration, and reinforcing positive behaviors • Educating others about NLD is critical for those who interact with these children

Nonverbal Learning Disabilities (NLD) are not just learning disabilities; the motor, sensory, and social issues associated with NLD affect life on every level.

Children with NLD have difficulty combining information coming at them from different channels—visual, auditory, sensory—into a “big picture” that they can understand and use. For them, life is an endless series of curve balls—and for their parents that means a unique set of child-rearing challenges.

5 Keys to Parenting a Child with NLD
  1. Anticipate: Know the challenges of NLD and predict problems.
  2. Understand: Think about your child’s behavior from his point of view.
  3. Plan: Develop strategies for handling predictable situations.
  4. Be consistent in your responses and your support.
  5. Reinforce: Catch her doing it right.
Dealing with Inflexibility

The most frequent issues parents face from children with NLD are inflexibility and poor adaptability, both of which result from processing limitations. These children can be stubborn, disobedient, and argumentative. Confronting these behaviors head-on can make a situation worse: modeling inflexibility is not the best way to teach children to be flexible.

Children with NLD like structure and often have trouble transitioning. In addition, they can seem selfish, insisting on what they expect. For example, Adam complained when he couldn’t go for ice cream as planned; his sister needed to go to the doctor. His reaction didn’t indicate a lack of caring; it was his way of coping with another curve ball (change in plans).

Parenting Strategies:

  • Communicating understanding is critical. Approach inflexibility with empathy (“I know you want X”), while also clarifying what is necessary (“We also need to do Y”).
  • Preview transitions.
  • Agree upon rules for repeated problem situations.
  • Reinforce success. 
Preventing Meltdowns

Children with NLD can be easily overwhelmed when routines vary, even in positive situations such as birthday parties or vacations. Knowing your child’s limits from past experience, being aware of extenuating factors (exhaustion, hunger), and recognizing the early signs of frustration are important. These techniques are aimed at preventing a blowup; once it’s happened, it’s too late.

Parenting Strategies:

  • Preview the situation
  • Intervene with redirection or a break for self-calming at the first sign of frustration.
  • Plan a quick way out if it escalates. 
Coping with Social Challenges

Children with NLD miss nonverbal signals that make up 70-90% of emotional communication. They don’t realize when their behavior is annoying, are not clear on what others intend, and lack “big picture thinking” to understand social situations. They can misinterpret the behavior of others, be unaware of the impact of their own behavior, be inappropriate, or overreact.

As a result of social misunderstandings, children with NLD are particularly vulnerable to bullying and having their actions misunderstood. Even family members can be offended by such behavior.

Parenting Strategies:

  • If bullying is taking place, take action to stop it.
  • Parents must be vigilant about pursuing their child’s rights and explaining NLD processing to those who interact with their child regularly.
  • Help family members understand the situation—and if they won’t, realize that their advice is going to be off base.
  • Blaming or punishing a child for what he doesn’t understand is not helpful. Better to preview situations, talk through strategies, and help process what happened. 
Other Challenges

Children with NLD can be surprisingly concrete in their thinking—missing jokes, inferences, figures of speech, and subtleties such as tone of voice and exaggeration. Because these children are so verbal, their misunderstanding may come across as “attitude.” It’s not; they don’t “get” what they have missed.

Parenting Strategy:

  • Be direct, and understand the frustration when they misunderstand or are misunderstood. 

Children with NLD tend to have poor spatial awareness, making it hard to gauge where other people are and “personal space.” They can be in your face or intrusive. The lack of spatial awareness also makes it difficult to play sports where getting to the ball and doing something with it are key (soccer, football, tennis, etc.). 

Parenting Strategies:

  • Use a hula hoop or the idea of a circle to explain how people respond when someone’s too close. 
  • Encourage activities such as swimming or martial arts where visualizing space isn’t an issue. 

Most children with NLD are lovely, sweet kids. Their challenges get in their way, making life hard for their parents. But it’s even harder for the children themselves. They want nothing more than to feel accepted and to please, and instead they are often misunderstood and criticized.

The author is an evaluator, consultant, and therapist who specializes in working with children with NLD and autism-spectrum disorders. 

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