“I had a terrible secret while growing up. Although I was in gifted programs in high school, I suspected-even knew-that I was not really very smart. In fact, I thought I was stupid. I wasn’t sure how that fit into a few facts from my past: reading novels before other kids could read a pre-primer, curling up with a good history, teaching myself to diagram sentences at ten for the fun of it…. All I saw was that some kinds of learning were incredibly hard for me. I couldn’t be learning disabled, though. I was a terrific reader. Didn’t everyone with learning disabilities have reading problems? I had difficulty writing for any length of time, had trouble memorizing, and could not learn to understand foreign languages, even though a test showed an aptitude for them. I had trouble concentrating on lectures, even when I was interested. I was disorganized and uncoordinated. Teachers had no trouble explaining my problem: I was lazy and unmotivated. All I had to do was try harder.
Well, they had no idea how hard I did try-at first. Later, I gave up because I didn’t know how to fix what was wrong with me. I was very proud of being considered the smart one. I lived in terror that someone would find out my secret and I would lose my identity. I decided it was better to let everyone think I was lazy than to let them find out my real secret.
It was not until my own children were diagnosed that I understood what had been wrong with my childhood. Dysgraphia, ADD, and a few other non-linguistic learning disabilities explained a lot. Since then, I have given a great deal of thought to the challenges of the learning disabled teen.
The challenge is serious, whether the teen has just been diagnosed, or has grown up with the diagnosis. Every LD teen knows that some people consider him stupid, not understanding the difference between a learning disability and a low IQ. A teenager’s self-esteem is almost always challenged anyway, and the LD teen has more worries than most. While others are working their way through Shakespeare, the LD teen may still be struggling with grade-school level material. Those without reading disorders may be attending regular classes with teachers who simply don’t understand. Most teachers still think that students who read well can’t really be disabled. The problem is that so many LD people are brilliant one day-or one minute-and seemingly stupid the next. The inconsistency is what convinces teachers the problem is really laziness. A teen can internalize this misconception and start to believe the teachers.
Another problem faced by the LD teen is a strong fear of the future. He begins to wonder if he will be able to go to college. Will he be able to have a high-paying career? For a teen with learning disabilities, the future does not seem bright and exciting. It seems scary and paved with failure.
What can a parent do to help? The first step is to open up an honest dialogue with your teen. Tell him, if he doesn’t know already, what his disability is and what it means to him. If you have the same disability, share your experiences with him. Help him learn how to talk to others about his challenges. Tell him the truth about his disabilities. I tell my kids that they will have to work three times harder than everyone else for the same results. It’s not fair, but it’s life. They can choose to do the extra work and succeed, or they can decide it’s too hard and fail. They can’t choose their disability, but they can choose how to deal with it.
One of the biggest challenges for a learning disabled teen is the need to take control of his own disability. You can’t follow him to college or into the workforce and mediate for him. This is the time to begin turning that responsibility over to him. Don’t simply dump it on him, of course. As with any other adult skill, he needs training in this. You will have to teach him how to determine what he needs in order to succeed in a class. He will have to find out how to go to a teacher or a counselor and explain those needs. He should be attending IEP (Individualized Educational Plan) meetings and participating. It’s his education-he should have a say in it. When the needs are not being met, he will have to learn to mediate for himself. He, not you, should talk to the teacher about the problem, even if you initially have to be in the room. You should only step in after he has worked on it himself. Even then, he should participate in this intervention.
Try some role playing at home. Let him practice what to say on you or on another trusted adult. Try to anticipate what problems will arise, and decide in advance how to deal with them. Then have him act out those problems with you, even writing out a script, if necessary, in the early stages.
If your teen is afraid of the future, you need to find an organization for the learning disabled. Often these organizations include adults with learning disabilities who can talk to your teen and reassure him. Is he afraid of college? Visit a college’s learning disabilities center with your child and find out what services are available. Find out what employment assistance is available to the learning disabled.
In preparation for the day when you will not be there, teach your teen how to do his own research. How do you find organizations? How do you decide who to talk to at a college? How do you learn more about your disability? Often as parents of LD kids, we have been more involved than most in our child’s life, and it can be difficult to realize the time has come to step back.
You will be your child’s source of courage. Taking responsibility for your own disability is frightening. Be there in the wings to offer advice, praise and encouragement. Then step back and watch as your child grows up.”