Learning Disabilities and Self-Esteem

by Melissa Skinner, M.A., LCPC

Throughout my career in the mental health field, I have seen many children and teens struggling with the consequences of a learning disability. One of the worst consequences of a learning disability is when it has devastating effects on a child’s self-esteem. Feelings of low self-worth and a negative view of one’s abilities is not uncommon. When these kids are left unsupported their feelings can lead to more serious behavioral and emotional problems. The most common learning disorders that I see in my practice are Dyslexia and ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). Dyslexia affects 20% of the population and represents 80-90% of all those with learning disabilities, while ADHD has affected more than 6.4 million children at some point (Ryan C., 2017). ADHD is not technically considered a learning disability; however, it does affect a child’s ability to learn in school. ADHD impacts a child’s impulse control and their ability to pay attention, while Dyslexia makes it hard to acquire specific skills, like reading or writing. Scientific evidence points to both being neurologically based conditions. These two learning impediments can be equally as challenging for a person, but they are different in nature. Unlike typical learning disabilities, ADHD can be treated with medications and behavioral therapies, while Dyslexia relies on instructional interventions. What both conditions have in common is that children or teens that are diagnosed with either one, very often suffer from poor self-image and an inferiority complex. As their peers begin to excel in their ability to read, write or solve math problems, they continue to struggle and feel frustrated and defeated. If left undiagnosed, feelings of frustration can escalate, leaving the child to conclude that they’re failing because they are dumb.

Parents often wonder whether diagnosing or labeling their child as Dyslexic or as having ADHD is helpful or harmful. Many times, parents do not want their child “labeled” for fear of what teachers, peers and ultimately colleges might think. There are in fact more benefits to “labeling” your child and using their diagnosis to help them. The earlier a child can get the appropriate interventions for a learning disability, the better. With a proper diagnosis, schools can develop education plans to best meet a child’s academic needs. Educators have come a long way in their understanding of learning disabilities and good teachers know that smart children can also have a learning difference and still be successful. Receiving a diagnosis can also be validating to a child who has struggled in school for a long time. Once these kids learn that their IQ is average or above average, but that their brains learn differently, they begin to let go of the fear that they’re simply “stupid” or incapable. When older kids are given a diagnosis, they can go into the scientific literature themselves and see that many others have the same diagnosis and some of the same challenges. If parents do not use the label dyslexic or ADHD, they run the risk of having their child find out later about their diagnosis and then assume their parents kept it hidden because the diagnosis was too awful to face. These are not doomsday diagnoses and the sooner the problem is addressed the better the prognosis.

So, knowing that children with learning disabilities are at risk for having lower self-esteem than that of their peers, what are we to do as parents? First and foremost, become your own expert on the topic of your child’s learning issues. You are the most effective advocate and ultimately it is your responsibility to make sure your child is receiving the services they need. Focusing on supporting your child’s emotional needs and helping them to overcome issues related specifically to learning problems and low self-esteem is your number one job! Reaching out for guidance from a licensed mental health provider may be a good option in some cases. Self-esteem and mental health are one of the most important aspect of helping a child with a learning disability. The reading and writing part can always be figured out, but once a child sees him or herself as someone that cannot learn, then the problem becomes much bigger.

Parenting a child with a learning disability can certainly be challenging but just like the disability itself, it is not insurmountable by any stretch. The following are a few tips to help a child with a learning disability increase self-esteem.

  • Make sure your child understands what a learning disability is and that it has nothing to do with intelligence.
  • Challenge negative thoughts such as “I’ll never succeed” or “I’m just not smart”.
  • Set your child up for success by setting achievable goals.
  • Validate tough emotions such as shame and frustration and talk through difficult situations which may arise at school.
  • Provide role models that can serve as an inspiration to your child. Many famous actors, entrepreneurs and sports players have struggled with a learning disability but have persevered.
  • Nurture and celebrate strengths. Find, focus on and nurture your child’s strengths and talents. (art, sports, music etc.)
  • Review classroom accommodations. Make sure your child has all the resources available to assist with successful learning.
  • Be your child’s best cheer leader. Offer encouragement while focusing on effort not outcome.  

Melissa Skinner is the founder of Northwest Counseling & Wellness and a Licensed Clinical Therapist who has been working with children, teens and families for over 15 years. To schedule a free phone consultation call 872-222-3132