Individuals with learning differences often have greater difficulty navigating the world around them.  Much of this depends upon the type of challenge they experience.  An individual with ADHD may struggle with focus and attention whereas an executive-functioning challenged person requires a great deal more energy managing multiple tasks simultaneously.  These challenging may spill over into difficulty managing social and emotional tasks that may appear common and normal for someone else.

Emotional and behavioral issues are common with individuals struggling with learning challenges.  Everyday experiences are what nurture emotional regulation and maturity.  Individuals with learning challenges, however, are often blocked from these everyday “normal” experiences.  Because of this, their understanding of social/emotional interactions may be altered or delayed and they may utilize immature coping mechanisms to deal with relational issues.  For instance, a learning disabled adolescent responding to a parental boundary may react impulsively or explosively.  A child who struggles with attention and hyperactivity may experience an unusual and addictive feeling of calm by using stimulant substances (i.e., amphetamine, methamphetamine).  That’s because the stimulant acts inversely with individuals already living in a stimulated state due to their hyperactivity.  Substance use provides a calming effect and they experience the world in a less scattered, anxious manner.

Along with the primary effects that may come with learning differences, secondary effects may occur such as:

  • low self-esteem,
  • depression,
  • social isolation,
  • anger,
  • low school performance,
  • and so forth.

Sometimes these secondary effects mask the primary issue—a learning disability.  For instance, an individual being treated for depression may in fact need concentrated therapeutic services focused on non-verbal learning disorder and its impact on their social abilities.

With the right support, many young people can learn to leverage their learning differences to their own advantage, turning a learning disability into a learning ability.  Those with ADHD may become effective at multi-tasking—a skill needed in the emergency room, on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and in startup businesses.  An adult with dyslexia may—as a result of her learning difference—learn to “think different” and end up succeeding in a creative profession.  To read stories along these lines, try Googling “ADHD strengths and weaknesses stories” for a host of website links with learning difference success stories.

There are many learning disorder treatment options to help individuals understand and work through their learning differences and the emotional and behavioral impact they can have.  Regardless of the type of learning challenge, care givers should keep the following three concepts in mind in order to help them navigate the emotions associated with learning differences:

  1. Re-affirm your love and care for the individual.
  2. Validate her subjective experience with her particular learning challenge.
  3. Work with her to explore and adopt new skills for navigating social situations and expressing emotions.  For instance, with my own son, I let him know how valuable and important he is to me, discuss how hard it is to remember more than one thing at a time, and use the word “focus” as a signal to keep his attention on what he needs to be doing at hand.

All individuals have their own set of personal challenges.  As with anyone, learning challenged individuals need love, support and specific skills to work through their experience.

John Stewart, LCSW, is the executive director of New Haven, a residential treatment facility for adolescent girls located in Utah.  New Haven is part of the InnerChange family of treatment centers, known for providing clinically sophisticated treatment to adolescent girls and young women with emotional and behavioral difficulties.  Mr. Stewart has been providing clinical care to young people for over 20 years and may be reached by email at JohnS@newhavenrtc.com.