Julia Murphy, LMFT
Parents often come to me confused about whether or not assisting their Learning Disabled (LD) child is in fact “enabling” him. A further complication is that each parent may have a different opinion about this issue. Many 18-year-olds may be driving, holding down jobs or making appointments on their own, while these typical rites of passage may not apply to an LD teen, whose development is following a slower course. These teens may have the emotional maturity of someone much younger. Parents sometimes feel a renewed sense of fear and grief during this period that may trigger earlier feelings they had when their son or daughter’s learning difference was first detected.
This was the case with one of my clients, the mother of a son who was diagnosed with Non Verbal Learning Disability and ADHD at age 5. She felt that over the years of his childhood, she had adjusted to her son’s strengths and limitations after the initial shock of his diagnosis when he was age 5, followed by what felt to her like stages of grief: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance. She had expended a lot of energy and effort along the way to support her son, having him evaluated periodically, finding educational therapists, occupational therapists and mentors. She also learned how to navigate the IEP process with an advocate who helped her get funding for a non-public school that could support his academic, social and emotional needs. By the time he reached high school it seemed like life was fairly stable for her son and the family. He was on an effective medication regimen, was able to work more independently, and had finally found a small, steady group of friends. She could finally relax a little. Although those high school years weren’t without their turbulence, it felt like nothing to her compared to the early years of acting out and hyperactivity both he and his family endured.
Then, as he began his senior year and friends were applying to college, taking the SATs and even finding part time work, a renewed sense of his being set apart and left behind entered her consciousness, especially when his friends came over to the house and she could sense the disparity between her son’s maturity level, accomplishments and abilities compared to his friends. As much as she resisted the comparison, so many early feelings came rushing back – fear, bitterness, grief, heart ache. As painful as these feelings are, they are also natural. As parents, we want so much for our children to be happy, successful and fulfilled. On a deeper biological/primal level, we hope to ready them for survival after we are gone.
With therapy, this mother was able to recalibrate her emotions surrounding her son and his well-being and to remind herself to resist comparing him to others. She focused on what she could control – support, love and guidance – and managed, at least most of the time, to let go of expectations connected to comparing her son to other teens his age. Admittedly, this is not an easy task for a parent, but it is an important one to work toward. After all, launching a child is a major transition in the life of an entire family. It may be a very emotional time even without the added worries that come with parenting an LD child.
My word of advice is, to the best of your ability, honor your feelings but also resist comparing your teen to the “neurotypical” neighbor. Talk your feelings out with a sympathetic therapist if need be. In the end, your peace of mind and your child’s self esteem stands a better chance of remaining intact if you consider where your child’s independence and maturity level actually are, rather than where they “should” be. Also, bear in mind that brain and frontal cortex keep developing into the 20s and even 30s. Many of these skills will develop over time, and learning disabled teens will reach independence with the right support and training. In fact my mantra to sooth worried parents is the phrase “time is your ally.” Remember it if you can.