Common Reactions to a Child's Learning Disability

Discovering 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 after learning of a diagnosis. With some understanding and patience, you can learn to cope as well as take steps to empower your child to work through the learning disability.

Before you can move forward though, you need to acknowledge the wide array of emotions you may be experiencing including everything from relief to despair and everything in between. 

What's more, it's not uncommon for parents to cycle from one emotion to another, depending on the seriousness of the disability, their coping skills, and their support system.

Even if you suspected the disability all along, it's normal to still be shocked by the news. You're coming to terms with the significance of this issue and grappling with what it means for the future.

Here are common reactions to discovering that your child has a learning disability. You may experience only one reaction to the news, or you may experience all of them. Be patient and allow yourself the time to process what you've been told. Learn to work through each emotion until you reach acceptance.

1

Denial

Troubled woman, husband in background
Simon Potter/Cultura/Getty Images

Denial is refusing to acknowledge that your child has a disability. Parents make excuses for their child's academic setbacks because they don't want to accept a disability. They may blame their child's struggles on teachers or a spouse instead. Or, they may accuse the child of being lazy and refuse to allow special education services to be provided.

Why does denial occur? It's profoundly frightening for some parents to acknowledge a disability. Denial usually comes from a deep-rooted fear that their child will struggle in life or be rejected by others, which are often a parent's worst nightmare.

If you're finding it hard to accept your child's diagnosis, it may help to ask yourself why you're feeling that way. Is the situation just too difficult to accept? Would a second opinion help?

The key is to discover why you're struggling to accept this news and work through your feelings.

Eventually though, you may have to accept that your child is struggling for a reason. Both of you will benefit from accepting the reality of the situation and developing a plan to address the issues.

2

Anger

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

It's OK to feel angry about your child's diagnosis. After all, the challenges facing your child are extremely unfair. But, you cannot allow your anger to take root.

While anger can be useful in allowing you to acknowledge the injustice of your child's situation, it should never be directed at other people, including yourself.

Instead, take the energy that your anger brings and allow it to motivate you to become an advocate for your child. Let it fuel your efforts to find solutions. Anger can be useful if it's channeled properly. Just don't let your anger control you or hurt other people.

3

Fear

When parents first learn of their child's learning disability, they often fear the unknown. For instance, you might wonder how you and your child are going to get through this; or you might wonder about your child's future. You may even be fearful that this learning disability will be insurmountable. And, you may dwell on the idea that your child may always need your support and worry about what will happen when you're gone.

Perhaps you're fearful about how this disability will affect your other children. You may even fear society's reaction and worry about rejection. Sometimes these fears are so overwhelming that you're frozen and completely immobilized. But you cannot allow that to happen.

If you feel overwhelmed by fear, it might be helpful to write down everything that you are fearful of. Then, try thinking about each fear individually. Is it rational? Is there a way to address it?

Sometimes acknowledging your fears gives them less power over you—especially if you're able to come up with a plan to address them.

Also, talk with other parents in similar situations. They may be able to offer tips or suggestions on how they've dealt with the same issues you're struggling with. Don't try to go through this alone or allow your fears to overwhelm you.

4

Grief

Grief is a powerful sense of loss that many parents feel when they learn their child has a disability. After all, they're giving up some of the dreams they had for their child and that's heartbreaking. Everything feels different somehow and it can be hard to accept. Don't beat yourself up for feeling sad over the loss of "normalcy." Grief is a normal reaction to the news that your child has a learning disability.

But you cannot let grief take hold in your life. While it is OK to feel sad, you want to avoid dwelling in sadness. It can quickly turn into victim-thinking, and the last thing you want to do is have a pity party for yourself or your child. Yes, it is sad that your child must deal with this, but instead of feeling sorry for them, try empathizing and being encouraging instead.

Focus on being understanding and supportive. In doing so, you will empower your child to embrace the challenges that lie ahead.

5

Guilt

Almost every parent at one time or another feels guilty about their child's disability. They wonder if they did something to cause the issue or if an accident happened that they're unaware of.

In fact, they question every bump and bruise their child received up to the diagnosis and may even comb through memories of their pregnancy searching for some explanation or sign that they did something wrong. They want a reason why this is happening and often look to themselves to blame. But feelings of guilt, although quite common, are never useful or beneficial.

If you find that you're blaming yourself or feeling guilty over your child's diagnosis, you need to recognize that this type of thinking is not effective.

You did nothing to cause your child's learning disability. You also should not blame yourself for "not seeing the issue sooner."

Instead, learn as much as you can about your child's learning and thinking capabilities. Understanding everything you can about your child's learning disability will increase your confidence and equip you to become an advocate for your child. Soon, you will realize that with the right support, your child can be successful and happy.

6

Confusion

Learning of a child's disability can feel a lot like information overload. You might hear new words that you've never heard before and terms that describe something that you don't yet understand. On the one hand, you want to learn more, but on the other, you're unsure where to start. There is just so much new information being thrown at you that it's not uncommon to feel dazed by it all.

Feeling confused is a common reaction to the news about your child's learning disability. But, don't let it derail you or keep you from acting.

Ask questions until you understand what you and your child are facing. Find resources in your community and online that help you make sense of your child's learning disability. Eventually, you're going to feel like an expert, which can be very empowering as you navigate the system.

7

Powerlessness

Parents often have an innate desire to help their kids or to fix difficult situations. They want to feel competent and in control. But, with a learning disability, they feel anything but. They quickly realize that they cannot change the situation or make it go away. What's more, it's extremely difficult to rely on the expertise and opinions of others—especially if the people conveying the news are strangers. All of these factors provide the perfect recipe for feelings of complete and utter powerlessness.

The best way to regain a sense of competence is to recognize where you're weak and work to address those areas.

In other words, what will ease your feelings of powerlessness? Is it acceptance of things outside of your control? Gathering more information? Getting support from your community? Prayer or meditation?

Only you will know how to address your feelings of powerlessness. But, this feeling is not one you should ignore. Find ways to cope with the fact that although a learning disability is not something you can control, it is something you can address and make the most of.

8

Relief

Relief may be the last thing you would expect to feel upon learning about a child's disability, but relief does happen—often because a formal diagnosis provides an explanation for your child's struggles. Some parents are relieved because a diagnosis qualifies their child for special education accommodations and special instruction under an Individualized Education Plan. Finally, they feel like they have answers.

If you're feeling relieved to finally have an explanation for your child's struggles, don't feel bad. Some parents feel guilty over this relief and wonder why they aren't more upset.

Most likely, if you're feeling relief after the diagnosis, it's because you already sensed there was an issue and this news doesn't surprise you or catch you off guard.

Likewise though, it doesn't mean you won't struggle with other emotions too. After all, you may have had a small glimmer of hope that you were wrong. But the good news is now you finally have an answer and soon you will have a plan in place to not only address your child's needs, but also to set them on a pathway to success.

A Word From Verywell

While it is important to acknowledge how you're feeling, it's important for both you and your child that you come to terms with the learning disability. After all, any one of these emotions can immobilize you if you allow it. For this reason, you need to learn to take this situation one day at a time. Let go of the "what ifs" and the "what thens" and focus on what is happening today. When you do, you will be able to find peace, joy, and hope as you face each day together.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Sahu A, Bhargava R, Sagar R, Mehta M. Perception of families of children with specific learning disorder: an exploratory etudyIndian J Psychol Med. 2018;40(5):406–413. doi:10.4103/IJPSYM.IJPSYM_148_18

  2. Hedderly T, Baird G, McConachiez H. Parental reaction to disability. Current Pediatrics. 2003;(13):30-35. doi:10.1054/cupe.2003.0406