Making a Difference for Kids with Learning Differences: The Power of Family Therapy

It may sound cliché, but in my professional experience it could not be more accurate: There is an enormous amount of academic pressure on children today. Many of the children and teenagers who seek my services are struggling with severe anxiety over the workload, pace and level of difficulty experienced in school. Some of these children have an extra challenge: trying to keep up with the hefty demands of school while also having a Learning Difference (LD).


While traditional treatments for LDs highlight academic remediation, family therapy can address underlying challenges that many families face. Families often put a lot of time and energy into finding successful academic supports for their children. While some children perform better in school with the assistance of these services, communication and relationship challenges often continue at home.  For example, many families describe home as a battleground when trying to complete homework.  This is not surprising because  children with LDs often perceive themselves as inadequate and their parents believe they are failing in their role as parents. This dynamic can set up an unfortunate cycle of negative behavior. A certain “dance” between child and parent occurs; the more parents push homework, the more resistance they encounter from their child/teenager. And the less homework the child/teen gets done, the more parents push. Siblings often can get caught somewhere in the middle; they may try to play the “peace-maker” in these battles, or may feel jealous of the extra attention his/her sister or brother might get due to him/her having a  LD.

The good news is that these unproductive cycles can be broken. Family therapy can assist all family members in feeling that their concerns are being heard and can remove “blame” from a specific family member (it is often the child/teen with an LD who holds- or at least perceives him/herself to hold- the “problem” label). When challenges are approached from a family, rather than individual, perspective it often feels less threatening to each family member.

Family therapy can facilitate understanding of the emotional toll that a LD takes on each family member.  Parents can come to understand the breadth and depth of their children’s feelings about their learning differences and may realize that their child  has been experiencing enormous frustration, discouragement, and feelings of worthlessness.  Conversely, children with LDs can become aware of how parents and siblings feel about the LD, and how it can affect the family as a whole. Family therapy not only helps bring many of these feelings to the surface, it also helps each family member embrace their own unique strengths and validate what each member adds to the family system.

In addition to generating a better understanding of thoughts and feelings, family therapy can help family members learn to improve their communication and problem-solving skills.  The therapist can provide the family with concrete strategies to address specific challenges such as homework battles.  Parents can learn  tools to encourage, guide, support, and set limits so that children with LDs can not only meet their challenges, but also build their sense of self-esteem and self-worth, and gain the discipline and confidence to keep going in the face of challenges.

As a family therapist, I feel fortunate to witness the healing dialogue that takes place between a child/teen with a LD and his/her family when the learning difference is addressed within a family setting. As family therapist Peter Steinglass, M.D., Executive Director of the Ackerman Institute for the Family, once said, “in the end the most powerful thing that happens in family therapy is that the family sits together in a room and hears each other speaking in a completely new way.”


–Posted by Kathy Voglmayr




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