Parenting Students with Learning Differences – Dealing with our Own Anxiety

This is the third article by College Parent Central contributor Dr. Lynn Abrahams.  Lynn specializes in college transition and success for students with learning differences.

Julie Lythcott-Haims, in her book How to Raise an Adult (2015), reports that American parents are depressed at twice the rate of the general population. There is no question about it, parenting can be stressful, challenging, and anxiety provoking.

As parents of students with learning differences, we have watched our kids navigate years of school experience. We have been with them through neuro-psych testing, diagnosis, meeting with teachers and special educators. We have shared both the success stories and the brick walls with them. As their parents, we know more than anyone else where the pitfalls could be. This is probably why our own anxiety can swell to explosion when they take that leap to go to college. In fact, it is possible that we could be even more anxious than they are!

I speak as both a parent and as a learning disability specialist, who has worked with college students for the past 30 years, when I say that we need to find healthy strategies to deal with our own anxiety. We will not be able to be supportive to our students if we don’t take care of ourselves first.

There is a reason airline personnel instruct us to put the oxygen mask on ourselves before helping others — if we run out of oxygen we are of no use to anyone else.

Here are some thoughts to ponder as your kids gear up for the transition from high school to college:

Feeling anxious is normal

  1. It is good to admit to yourself what you are feeling and know that there is no shame in it. As parents, we are so biologically wired to ”protect” our offspring that we are particularly good at predicting what could go wrong. This is wonderful when they are two years old and running into the road. It may not be as helpful when they begin the process of learning how to rely on themselves in the college environment. When you have been involved with the day-to-day school pressures of your student’s high school experience, it makes sense that it would be stressful for you when they are in this transition. The response of feeling anxious stems from your love and it is OK to feel it.

The timing is perfect for self-reflection

  1. When students begin the college experience there’s a natural shift that occurs in your role. This is the perfect time to begin looking at the growing space between you and them. In elementary, middle, and high school you needed to be involved to make sure your student got the services they needed. In college, they need to learn to advocate for themselves. This is a natural time to take a step back and look at what you can do to help that is now in the support role rather than the fix-it role.

Look at the message you are giving

  1. When we get overly anxious about our student’s performance, without meaning to, we can send out the message that they cannot do it. I remember working with a first-year student whose mom was checking in every day to make sure she was following the syllabus in her writing class. The mom meant well in reminding her daughter to pay attention to the expectations of the professor. But the student admitted to me that she thought her mother was sure she would fail in college. We discussed ways we could reassure her mother to let her know that she was aware of what she needed to do.

It is possible to teach helplessness

  1. If our students think we will step in to solve a problem, they may not choose to take the risk of trying to fix it themselves. The concept ”Learned Helplessness”, observed and named by psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven F. Maier, is a real phenomenon. Originally the term referred to the fact that animals who receive negative stimuli eventually stop trying to avoid it and become helpless, even when there is a way out. Seligman and Maier realized that this did not just happen with negative stimuli. If anyone believes that they have no control over their situation (if mom or dad fix every problem, the student loses the sense of power) they begin to behave in a helpless manner.

We tend to focus more on the anxiety of our students, who are entering college, than on our own complex mixture of feelings. Yet, there are important reasons to look at ourselves and notice how what we feel may affect our students.  Our goal is to support our students’ confidence as they transition into becoming successful college students. The first step may be to take an honest look at our own anxiety.

Related Articles:

Making the Shift from High School to College When Your Student Has Learning Differences

Support for Students with Learning Differences in College: Do Your Homework!

Does Your Student Know How to Advocate for What They Need?


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