By Melissa Klosk, PsyD
Adolescence is a challenging time for everyone, but it can be especially stressful for young people with learning differences. Teachers begin to ask more of their students. Teens struggle with who they are and what they want their future to look like. Navigating social life may become more challenging, as friendships change and teens start forming romantic relationships. All of this in addition to having to navigate the extra needs of having a learning difference can make school, work, and social life overwhelming. But you should know your teen is not alone. Research shows that an estimated 4.6 million school-age children and adolescents in the United States have been diagnosed with a learning disorder.
Remember that being diagnosed with a learning disorder doesn’t mean your teen is bad at learning. It means they learn differently. This is why I generally prefer the term learning difference to learning disorder.
There are many different kinds of learning disorders and everyone experiences them differently. It may take some experimenting to discover what specific methods of support and encouragement your teen needs. Consider reaching out to a teacher, medical provider, or mental health clinician for advice. If appropriate, you and your teen’s school can develop an Individualized Education Program together based on your child’s needs and strengths.
Taking all of these differences into consideration, here are 5 things all caregivers of young people with learning differences should know:
1. Learning differences do not make anyone a failure.
People with learning differences can do amazing things with their lives. Actor and comedian Whoopi Goldberg has a reading disorder. So does journalist Anderson Cooper. Many successful scientists and famous historical figures of all types have or had a learning disorder. Make sure your teen knows that having a learning difference does NOT destine them to “failure.” Their learning difference should not make them feel limited to only certain fields or professions. With perseverance and passion they are capable of success.
2. Your teen is not lazy or acting a certain way to make you mad.
Learning differences make many aspects of adolescents’ lives a little harder. Things that their peers can do with ease may be more challenging for them. For example, seemingly routine tasks—such as reading a textbook or teachers’ notes or taking notes during class—may be strenuous. These difficulties are not constrained to reading and writing. Some teens have a math disorder. Reading, writing, math, and language processing are a part of everything. This means that homework assignments of all kinds may take longer or feel more challenging for your teen than they do for other students—and that’s ok. This does NOT mean that your teen is lazy or trying to make you mad when it takes them longer to complete assignments or learn new material. Try changing your perspective a bit. Think: my teen is not giving me a hard time; they are having a harder time.
3. Yelling and punishing don’t help.
The challenges of having a learning difference may spill into other parts of young people’s lives beyond the classroom. Many young people with learning differences struggle with low self-esteem. If you become angry when your teen doesn’t achieve your expectations, you send the message that they’ve done something wrong—even if they worked hard. This can be incredibly discouraging, and eventually they may begin to believe that they will never succeed. Instead, focus on your teen’s strengths and accomplishments, like going to an extra study session or completing a particularly challenging school assignment. Don’t wait for what you might consider a major event. Instead, remember to praise and encourage your teen for the little accomplishments along the way. Those little moments of achievement and recognition matter BIG TIME!
4. Your teen may need to experiment with different learning styles.
Adolescents and young adults can learn and succeed if they get the right help and support. Your teen may understand new information more easily if it’s presented in a different way. For example, rather than always writing information, the message can be presented visually or auditorily. Repetition—whether that means saying information out loud several times, reading passages over again, or going to extra-help with teachers or tutors—may help them absorb new information. Work with your teen’s teachers to find the study tools that best match their learning strengths. Just because their learning style is different doesn’t mean they can’t learn. With time and patience, they will be in a position to reach their goals.
5. It’s never too early to help your teen plan for their future.
Help your teen identify their strengths. Encourage them to pursue interests and hobbies. Talk to their teachers about clubs, projects, and professional opportunities that align with their interests and skills. Encourage your teen to talk to their guidance counselor or a mental health professional about their future plans—whether that’s a four-year university, community college, or vocational training. Always focus on what makes them feel motivated and brings them joy.
If your teen is 10-22 years old and lives in NYC, you can make an appointment at Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center for free, comprehensive health services including psychoeducational testing and mental health services for youth with learning differences. The Learning Disabilities Association of America is a great online resource for more information about learning disorders and how to help young people with learning differences thrive.
Melissa Klosk, PsyD is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center and holds a doctoral degree in School and Clinical Child Psychology. Her research explores the intersections between neurodevelopmental delays and severe psychopathology in children and adolescents. She aims to use her unique background in both school and clinical psychology to help the families she works with navigate the special education system. Her additional clinical interests include: learning disorders, intellectual disabilities, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety disorders, and depressive disorders.
The Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center is located in New York City. It provides comprehensive, confidential, judgment free health care at no charge to over 10,000 young people every year. This column is not intended to provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion, treatment or services to you or to any other individual, only general information for education purposes only.