The Parent Trap

Having worked with children and adults who have learning differences for many years, I have witnessed this same scenario play out between parents and their child. Parents are full of hope and expectations for their child. At some point, they become aware that their child is responding a little differently than other children of the same age. The parents, through encouragement of family, friends, or professionals, seek help. The diagnosis usually confirms what the family suspected but feared. Parents often admit feelings of grief, confusion, and frustration. The grief comes from the loss of hopes and dreams that all parents have for their children. The confusion is prompted by questions about what the diagnosis means for their child’s future. The frustration comes from the volume of misinformation and the generalizations that are attributed to a learning difference diagnosis. For most parents, this phase quickly subsides and they begin to refocus those hopes and dreams.


Next, parents begin to focus on learning and adapting. They tend to become subject matter experts on their child’s specific learning difference. They become, as they should, the biggest advocate in their child’s life to ensure that the child receives every service to which he is entitled. They are tireless in their pursuit of any advantage they can obtain for the child’s education. They are relentless in making sure friends and family understand what the learning difference is and means. They are committed to protecting their child from the cruelties of the world. This may result in a tendency to tolerate anti-social behaviors as a result of the learning difference rather than identify them for what they are.


The result of all this “attention” is that the children with learning differences have limited expectations for achieving typical milestones. Children with learning differences are seldom burdened with typical household chores due to their dramatic resistance to these requests. This level of resistance may lead many parents to “walk on eggshells’ around their children. They will go to great lengths to avoid conflict with the child. As a result, the parent(s) assumes more and more of the daily responsibility for the life of the child. At this point, the diagnosis is defining the child rather than allowing the child to grow, explore and define him/herself. The parents, through all their great intentions, have created the beginnings of a learned helplessness in their child.


An easy trap for parents to fall into is trying to control things to the point where their child won’t fail. This is a society wide problem, which is exacerbated in the learning differences population. Parents fear that failure will defeat their child’s sense of self worth or cause their child to just give up. Parents get caught in the trap of believing that if they can control things long enough, then the child will someday be confident enough to do for himself. I would like to point out that failure is a mechanism for learning. Our young adults, who often have been raised in a very sheltered environment, often thrive in an environment where it is safe to fail. These young adults have their own view of the world, and they often have test their views against reality. We keep these tests simple and manage expectation so that the “failures” can be used as teachable moments.


Written by:

Tim McMahon
Founder / Executive Director
Brightstone Transitions
Learn More about Tim and the Brightstone Team


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