“How I Talked to My Daughter About Her Learning Disability”
How could I explain her learning disability in way that might build — not destroy — my child’s self-esteem? Finding the right moments and the right words to talk about how and why her brain’s unique wiring took courage, compassion, and time.
Keeping them secret was never part of my plan. My daughter’s learning disabilities do not shame or embarrass me. I also knew I could not keep the information from her. Every doctor’s visit prompted the pediatrician to ask about school, which resulted in a tip-toe-style conversation around my daughter’s struggles.
When she was 4, we began visiting specialists to test and retest her for ADHD and Auditory Processing Disorder (APD). Before and after each appointment, I offered a pep talk, so to speak, about what was going to happen there and a post-visit conversation to discuss how things went. As she entered elementary school, my daughter joined a special-education teacher for core subjects and saw occupational and speech therapists while the other kids were at gym or in art class. Certainly, things began to sink in for her.
I knew I had to explain why there were so many appointments and why she was seeing a different group of teachers than were her friends, but I didn’t want to crush her self-esteem. At the same time, keeping the information from her somehow implied that I was embarrassed, and I couldn’t let that happen either.
Working Up the Courage to Talk About Her Learning Disability
Our conversations about her learning disability and ADHD have evolved over time. I didn’t call for a family meeting. We didn’t sit down for one, major “We have to talk…” chat at the kitchen table. Instead, I’ve been sharing bits and pieces with her gradually — starting in about 2nd grade — adding more detail each year as she matures and becomes more capable of understanding what it all means.
Below are a few themes I’ve worked into our talks, which have taken place in the car after an appointment (where it seems less daunting), during breakfast when we both have clear heads, or cuddling on the bed after a hard day.
Know When Labels Matter, and When They Don’t
In general, students are taught not to affix labels to others or give in to stereotypes. These values should apply to learning differences, too, but it’s not always easy.
ADHD, in particular, comes with its own set of deeply ingrained stereotypes. We’ve all heard, “He can’t sit still… She won’t stop talking… They are out of control.” In some cases, these descriptions may be valid, but they’re certainly not the full story. Labelers often leave out the positive aspects of ADHD like hyperfocus, out-of-the-box thinking and creativity, and vibrant energy.
Despite my best parenting efforts, some of the more negative ADHD stereotypes became stuck in my daughter’s head. So when it came time to explain that she had ADHD, she didn’t believe it. Because she has the Inattentive Type, formerly known as ADD, I had to broaden her understanding of the disorder to explain that it doesn’t always include a hyperactive aspect. Those with Inattentive ADHD are often more forgetful and more easily distracted.
I shared why it’s important for anyone with a learning disability to understand what they have and what it involves. Armed with this knowledge, they can advocate forcefully for accommodations, when needed, and identify strategies that help them learn better. For my daughter, for instance, I explained that something as wonderful as daydreaming (a key trait of Inattentive ADHD) could become a real dilemma for her in high school and beyond. She would need to figure out ways to draw herself back into the present.
Looking ahead, I also explained that certain labels and diagnoses would be important to her education going forward. As students enter middle and high school, teachers and administrators need specific classification details in order to provide effective learning methods. Knowing the name of her classification, and the accommodations for which she’s qualified, will put her in the driver’s seat so she can share this information when and if it’s ever overlooked. That’s empowering.
Point Out ADHD Role Models
To help my daughter ditch stereotypes or defeatist reactions, I steered her toward the many famous people who live successfully with learning differences. A quick Internet search reveals countless inspiring profiles, from inventor Albert Einstein to Olympian Simone Biles to magician David Blaine. Hearing these examples helped ease the blow of the news.
Find What Works for Their Learning Style
My daughter and I talk regularly about different learning styles. She knows that each person has their own way of processing and retaining information: auditory learners prefer to hear presentations; visual learners benefit from seeing information through images, charts, or maps; kinesthetic learners need a hands-on approach. The fact that these distinctions apply to all individuals, not just those with learning disabilities, has always made sense to her.
My daughter, a visual learner, uses that unique ability to her advantage. She sees it as a skill and relies on it when studying for a test or memorizing math facts. By seeking out additional materials on a specific lesson or creating her own flashcards, she bolsters her understanding and increases her chances of recalling that information on subsequent tests. She uses it effectively during music lessons by picturing notes and rhythms in her head. As someone who considers herself an artist, she takes pride in being a visual learner. This type of “label,” so to speak, is a positive one as it reinforces her identity.
Let Them Digest the Information at Their Own Pace
At the end of our most recent talk about a forthcoming major round of testing (to ensure that her accommodations were up to date for high school which is fast approaching), I prepared for her to be upset.
But she wasn’t.
Instead, she said “OK,” grabbed her iPad and continued working on her latest Minecraft world. The testing news didn’t faze her. I felt surprised, slightly annoyed, relieved, and grateful all at the same time. My daughter was just being herself and I was happy to carry the emotional weight in her place.
Our conversations won’t end anytime soon. More will follow as she progresses through high school, applies to college, interviews for her first job, and joins a workplace. Her learning differences are lifelong – there is no “cure” for ADHD and she won’t “outgrow” APD – but there are strategies, skills, and approaches she can take to ensure that she’s being her true, best self each step of the way.
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