Manage Negative Emotions About Parenting an LD Child

Parents cope with a wide range of difficult feelings about their child’s learning challenges. Will my son or daughter be accepted to a good middle school, high school or college? Will he be able to create a life for himself? Will she ever be able to make and keep friends? All these questions weigh heavily on your mind and increase stress. While you may love your child and want the bet for him or her, your feelings of disappointment, confusion, helplessness, shame and anger may not seem very loving. You might find yourself trying to deny that you have these feelings, or you may take them as a sign that you are failing as a parent. The difficulty with this guilty mindset is that it only intensifies already painful feelings. Here’s my message to you: When parenting any child, a range of feelings, both positive and negative, is natural and human. It may be counterintuitive, but this self acceptance is crucial to processing your emotions and maintaining the composure to be present for your child. From this place, you’ll be better able to implement effective parenting strategies. Being comfortable with a wide range of feelings also helps you develop a greater capacity to understand and accept the range of emotions and experiences your child will have.

Of course, if you are feeling overwhelmed, depressed or your anger is out of control, seek the help and support of a professional.

Why So Many Children Struggle at School and Home

There have been hundred or thousands of research studies conducted over the past 20 to 30 years in the fields of neuroscience, neuropsychology and education that help us better understand the brain, learning and child development.  But, despite all of this knowledge, we have more children struggling in school than ever before.  How do we make sense of this?

One factor is that with teachers under such heavy pressure to cover so much academic ground, there is little time to consider their relationships with the children in their classroom. The quality of this relationship between child and teacher influences the child’s emotional experience and can make the difference between a child who is open to learning and one who is shut down and unwilling to take risks.

Another factor is the tremendous stress on adults and children given the uncertainty of our times.  The world economy is changing daily and completing a college degree does not assure one of a solid career as it once did.  Parents have to work long hours to keep pace with the needs of their families, placing significant strain on the quality of relationships within that family.  Stress is one of the greatest threats to the health of any relationship.

Some things you as a parent can do to manage stress, change the climate in your own home and help your children:

1. Manage difficult emotions: Your ability to identify and reflect on your feelings without acting on them in the moment is critical to healthy relationships.  When you react impulsively to your negative emotions, you increase the likelihood of saying something to your child that you might later regret.  You are also more likely to be punitive, which also ruptures your connection to your child.  I am not suggesting that you not hold your child accountable for certain responsibilities; however, I am suggesting that this be done in a thoughtful way.

Look for more parenting tips for managing stress tomorrow.  Peter Murphy, Ph.D.

Investing in a Child’s Strengths

Peter Murphy, Ph.D.

Adage for the day: When it comes to raising children, time is your ally.

Sometimes we discover the strengths in children by looking at the flip-side of what appear to be deficits.  For example, you might have a child who becomes single-minded and relentless when “locked onto” something she wants.  She can wear you down until you either lose your cool or just give in to maintain your sanity.  While this trait aggravates you at times, it could be a great asset in a different context.  Perhaps your child will be a great attorney whose single-minded focus contributes to her personal success.  Obviously, she will need help to learn how to manage this trait in personal relationships, but this will come about with your help and support over time.



How Do You Invest in Your Child’s Strengths?

 A good illustration of parents being attuned to their child came during the 2012 Summer Olympics.  Jonathan Horton of the United States Gymnastics team was featured in a television commercial explaining  how he climbed all the way to the ceiling in the middle of a department store at 4-years of age.  For some  parents this could be viewed as a behavioral issue requiring swift discipline to prevent a repeat performance.  However, after observing his athletic ability, Jonathan’s parents gave him gymnastics lessons, instead, to develop his innate ability.  AT 11-years-old, Jonathan committed himself to making the United States Olympic Gymnastics Team.  While not everyone has the makings of  an Olympic ahtlete, this is a great example of parents who were aware of their child’s strenghts and interests and who invested in those natural abilities.

Do You Believe All Children Want To Succeed?

I have yet to meet a child who does not want to succeed.  We all possess a natural drive for mastery over appropriate developmental tasks.  There is a robust pleasure for learning built into our brains.  We are driven to create connections between neurons and to master skills under the right conditions.  This concept is well supported by neuroscience research.  It is up to us as parents and other adults working with children to engage our curiosity about why a child sometimes has trouble in school or with friends and at other times seems to function so smoothly.

All adults working with children have a responsibility to communicate confidence in a child’s capacity to learn.  We also have to let children know that we are committed to helping them master whatever challenges stand in their way.  This approach will help these children develop resiliency and self esteem.  With encouragement and support, a child will learn to tolerate feelings or frustration and discouragement that sometimes come with the learning process.

When we observe our children struggling, we sometimes make assumptions about their motives in the form of character labels.  “Lazy,” “manipulative,” “self-centered,” “oppositional,” and “disrespectful” are a few of the common labels used to interpret poor performance.  When bright kids struggle it may seem to be the only way to make sense of their difficulties.  Learning differences can be confusing to observers because they are invisible, unlike physical disabilities.

A typical question I hear from parents is “Why can he play video games for hours but not focus on his homework?”  The truth is, video games activate the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain that enhances focus.  Most homework assignments don’t provide the same kind of stimulation for the brain.  It can be very stressful for an intelligent child to engage in a tedious academic task in the classroom or at home.

When we reduce our child’s struggles to character flaws, we are not considering the demands placed on her in different settings and whether or not she has developed the capacities and skills to meet those expectations.  Also, our understanding as to why she struggles is going to influence the way she understands her own difficulties.  For example, I often ask children with learning differences whey they think they are having problems in school or with homework.  It is not uncommon for them to respond, “It’s because I am lazy.”  Such a response tells me that adults in these children’s lives have fostered this belief in them.  If we are curoius about our child and willing to broaden our understanding of her struggles, we will help her develop a broader understanding of her strengths and challenges.  This mindset allows both parent and  child to work together to consider many more potential solutions to the problem at hand.

Finally, character labels limit our capacity to help.  What are we left to do if we determine that our child is lazy?  This mindset increases the likelihood that we will become more frustrated and possibly punitive about getting your expectations met.  In response, our child may become frustrated, angry and therefore resistant to doing what is asked.  A narrow perspective on our part sets up a negative dynamic with our child.

(Peter Murphy, Ph.D. To Be Continued)

How Do We Help Our Children Succeed?

The first thing any of us as parents, teachers and other adults working with children can do is to improve the quality of our relationship with them.  This idea is more than a philosophical shift in approach to childrearing.  It is a scientifically supported concept that needs to be put into practice on a daily basis to foster the social, emotional and academic development of our children.

The focus on a healthy, connected relationship takes priority over considering specific strategies for managing behavioral problems or addressing specific learning issues that show up in the classroom or at home.  The quality of our connection to our children directly influences their openness to our direction and support.  It is the difference between turning a child’s brain “on” or “off” to learning.

Learning involves emotions and cognition.  The two cannot be separated.  If a child is feeling anxious about completing a difficult academic task, it will interfere with his ability to think clearly, as well as to store and retrieve information for long-term memory.  He will need help with effectively managing anxiety before much learning can take place.

Look for specific strategies to help your child manage anxiety in future posts.

Peter Murphy, Ph.D.