What Is the Family's Role? (page 3)
Families are an amazingly complicated phenomenon to study. So-called normal families display a variety of intricate interactions, both positive and negative. Most of us have strong reactions to and memories about our families. We can recall vividly good as well as bad times in our families. And it is not uncommon to receive very different interpretations of family dynamics from different members of the same family. Families that contain a member with learning disabilities are even more complicated. Just the extra time required to parent a child with learning disabilities can alter how parents and siblings interact with the child who has learning disabilities as well as with nondisabled family members.
For many years, the customary way of viewing parental reactions was to consider them in terms of stage theory—the notion that parents, on learning that their child has a disability, go through a set sequence of emotional reactions over a period of time. Much of the impetus for a stage theory approach comes from work done on reactions people have to the death of a loved one. A typical sequence of reactions, based on interviews of parents of infants with serious physical disabilities, is shock and disruption, denial, sadness, anxiety and fear, anger, and adaptation (Drotar, Baskiewicz, Irvin, Kennell, & Klaus, 1975). Although such a theoretical framework has been more popular when considering children with more serious disabilities, some professionals have used this model in working with parents of children with learning disabilities.
More recently, many researchers have rejected the idea of a fixed sequence of stages through which all parents of students with disabilities pass (Hammitte & Nelson, 2001). Some parents do not experience some of these stages; of those who do, not all experience them in the same order (Friend & Cook, 2003). Further, "within the same family, some members may have strong coping capabilities and others may need much more support because their own capabilities have not yet been developed fully" (Turnbull & Turnbull, 2001, p. 99).
Of the many emotions parents feel when they first learn that their child has a disability, perhaps the most common is guilt. This reaction may occur because the causes of most disabilities are unknown. Some parents respond to this uncertainty about cause by blaming themselves for their child's disability.
Results of familiality studies and heritability studies indicate that learning disabilities can be inherited. There are, however, no quick and easy tests to determine that a child has inherited a learning disability from one or both parents. For some parents, the possibility that their child's learning disability may have been inherited can arouse feelings of guilt; for others, a genetic or biological explanation may help alleviate guilt and even help explain some of their own problems.
Raising any child can be stressful. Although helping children to negotiate the many pitfalls of childhood, adolescence, and even adulthood can be very rewarding, the responsibility for the well-being of a child in a society that is undergoing as many changes as ours can be overwhelming. Influences on children of the media, violence, and drugs, to mention a few, make the responsibilities of being a parent complex and difficult.
There is abundant evidence that being the parent of a child with learning disabilities increases the chances of experiencing stress (Dyson, 1996; Green, 1992; Lardieri, Blacher, & Swanson, 2000; Margalit & Almougy, 1991; Margalit, Raviv, & Ankonina, 1992). Although the deficits of learning disabilities are often not as conspicuous as those of children with physical or psychological disabilities, the very fact that students with learning disabilities do function within or close to the mainstream may create some very difficult decisions for parents and students, especially during adolescence. In particular, parents of adolescents with learning disabilities are likely to have difficulty deciding how much freedom and independence to allow their children (Morrison & Zetlin, 1992). For example, deciding when the child is ready to assume the responsibility of driving a car is often more difficult for parents of children with learning disabilities.
Another complicating factor is that many parents of children with learning disabilities exhibit external attributions; that is, they view themselves as being powerless to help their children cope with their problems (Green, 1992). How much their attributions are caused by their children's problems, or vice versa, is open to speculation, but the end result is that some of these parents either become dependent and give up trying to direct their children's lives or become overly rigid and controlling (Margalit & Almougy, 1991; Margalit et al., 1992; Michaels & Lewandowski, 1990).
Adding to the plight of some children with learning disabilities and their families is a higher prevalence of family instability and disruption. Researchers have found that children with learning disabilities are more likely than those without such disabilities to experience parental divorce, change of schools, or parental or sibling death or illness (Lorsbach & Frymier, 1992). There is speculation about whether such factors are causal. That is, does a child with a learning disability make the family more susceptible to some of these disruptions, or do some of these traumas contribute to the child's learning disability? Regardless of whether there is a causal connection and in which direction it is manifest, family instability makes it difficult for some families to cope with a child who has a learning disability.
Research on whether siblings of children with learning disabilities experience more problems in adjustment is mixed. Some siblings have trouble adjusting, some adjust well, and some report that they actually benefit from the experience (Dyson, 1996; Seligman & Darling, 1989; Senapati & Hayes, 1988). Others experience the same positive and negative dynamics found in all sibling relationships (Lardieri et al., 2000), as Jamal's sister indicates:
Jamal has a learning disability because he has trouble reading. Sometimes, he needs contracts and special rewards, but that doesn't bother me. To me, he's just my brother, Jamal. Sometimes, I like him, and sometimes, I don't. We can get along and play games, and I usually like looking out for him since I'm older. Other times, I think he's annoying and I want him to leave me alone.
-Patricia Smith, Jamal's sister
Generally speaking, however, brothers and sisters of children with disabilities are at a greater risk of having problems in their relationships with their siblings than are siblings of children without disabilities. Resentment can build, for example, because the child with a learning disability receives more attention from parents. It is often difficult for parents to provide an equal amount of care and attention to the child with a learning disability and to the other children in the family. Furthermore, some of the same social problems children with learning disabilities have with their peers are likely to play a role in interactions with siblings. Poor impulse control, difficulties in reading social cues, and so forth can make for volatile sibling relationships.
Although a number of problems can confront families of children with learning disabilities, the majority of families adapt very well. Some parents experience having a child with a disability as actually having some positive benefits. They say they have become more concerned about social issues and more tolerant of differences in other people. Some report that their families and marriages have been brought closer together because of their child's disability; they think that the common purpose of rallying behind their child has resulted in greater family cohesiveness. Although there is no definitive research on this, anecdotal evidence suggests that many special education teachers chose their profession because they had a sibling with a disability.
Professionals working with children with learning disabilities and their families must keep in mind that there is no universal set of reactions experienced by these families. Most families adjust well, some experience minor difficulties, and a few experience enough turmoil and stress to be considered dysfunctional.
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