Common Parent Reactions to a Child's Learning Disability

Grief and denial are typical reactions to discovery of a child's diagnosis

Learning that your child has a learning disability can be one of life's most significant stressors for parents, but you don't have to fall apart upon the news of a diagnosis. You can not only cope, but you can also take steps to give your child the best care he or she needs to work through his or her disability.

Before you can move forward, however, you may feel emotions ranging from relief to despair and everything in between after discovering your child has a learning disability. Some parents don't just have one reaction but shift from one emotion to another, depending on the seriousness of the disability, their coping skills, and their ability to work with spouses or other family members to give their special needs children the support they need.

Here are common reactions to learning that your child has a learning disability. You may experience any and all of them, possibly even within the space of minutes.

1
Denial

Troubled woman, husband in background
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Denial is the refusal to acknowledge that your child has a disability.  Parents in denial may make excuses for their child's academic setbacks because they don't want to accept that a disability is present. They may blame school failures on teachers or a spouse instead. They may accuse the child of being lazy or refuse to allow special education services to be provided.

Why does denial occur? It's profoundly frightening to some parents to acknowledge that a disability exists. Denial is usually a sign of deep-rooted fear that a disability means a child will fail in life, which is often one of a parent's worst fears.

2
Anger

Anger is a close cousin of denial because it's based on fear. Parents who are angry about their child's disability may point fingers at others.  Their anger may come out in the form of criticism, a belief that the school system cannot serve the child adequately, and tense and difficult Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meetings.

Why does anger occur? Like denial, anger is usually based on the fear that your child will not succeed in life. That often builds on the fear that no one can or will help.

3
Grief

Grief is a powerful sense of loss that many parents feel when they learn their child has a disability. Grief may occur because a parent worries about the future. Grief may occur repeatedly throughout the life of a child with special needs if he or she fails to achieve various milestones and social rites of passage that other children typically achieve.

Why does grief occur? Like the other emotions, grief can be based on the fear that your child won't be successful or that he or she will have a harder time in life.

4
Relief

Relief may be the last thing you would expect parents to feel upon learning their child has a disability, but relief does happen, often because a formal diagnosis of a disability gives parents an explanation for the struggles their children have faced. Some parents are relieved because a diagnosis of a disability can qualify a child to receive special education accommodations and special instruction under an Individualized Education Plan.