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Learning Disabilities and Depression

Why kids with LDs often develop depression, and need emotional support, too

Writer: Molly Hagan

Clinical Experts: Laura Phillips, PsyD, ABPdN , Helene Omansky, LCSW

We think of learning disabilities as affecting kids in school, but challenges in skills like reading, writing, math, and language affect all aspects of life, not just academic performance. We are using them all the time — reading street signs, counting change, playing games, and following conversations with friends.

Struggling with skills that appear to come easily to others, inside the classroom or out, can take an emotional toll starting at an early age. Research shows that children with learning disorders are at higher risk for developing depression. This risk increases as children enter their teenage years.

“Kids spend the majority of their waking hours in school,” says Laura Phillips, PhD, a neuropsychologist and the senior director of the Learning and Development Center at the Child Mind Institute. “When you spend eight hours a day engaged in something that’s challenging for you it has a very significant impact on your self-concept — meaning your idea about who you are as a person — and your ability to feel successful.”

School and self-worth

Depression can manifest in different ways:

  • Appearing sad or irritable
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Losing interest in things you once enjoyed 
  • Being tired all the time
  • Gaining or losing a lot of weight

But at its root are feelings of hopelessness and low self-worth. Studies show that for kids with learning disorders, the school environment can contribute to and breed these feelings.

A child with an undiagnosed learning disability is particularly at risk for depression because they don’t understand why they struggle with things that others don’t. Frustration and failure create a sense that something must be wrong with them. A diagnosis can be reassuring and offer them the support they need — but success will still be a struggle. When it comes to a child’s emotions, an LD diagnosis is not a magic bullet.

​​“It doesn’t always feel better right away,” notes Helene Omansky, LCSW, a senior social worker at the Child Mind Institute. “It will get better, but newly diagnosed kids need time to adjust to their support system, and to develop confidence in skills that they may have lacked.”

If you think your child might be depressed, consult a medical professional for help — but know there are ways parents and teachers can offer support, too.

Academic challenges get tougher

The requirements of school change as you get older, and there’s one shift that can be particularly tough for kids, especially those with reading and language deficits. “From kindergarten through second grade, you’re learning how to read,” Dr. Phillips explains. “By third grade, the emphasis shifts to reading to learn.”

In other words, reading becomes incorporated into every class. Kids who struggled in language arts classes but prided themselves on their math skills are suddenly confronted with math word problems. “And then they lose that confidence in the thing that might’ve been maintaining their sense of self and self-esteem,” Dr. Phillips explains.

This change is the first of many. Kids will continue to wrestle with their challenges in unexpected ways, and this can be discouraging.

“The impact of a learning disorder becomes more widespread as you move through school,” Dr. Phillips says.

It’s important for parents to understand the depth of frustration a child may be feeling and acknowledge it, says Omansky. We’re naturally inclined to dispel negativity with encouragement — “You’re so smart!” — but this can make a child feel isolated and unheard. If a child is saying they feel dumb because they can’t figure out how to solve a word problem, Omansky says, “It’s okay to validate that by saying something like, ‘I can see how frustrating this is for you.’”

Comparisons with peers

Around 8 or 9 years old, kids become less self-focused and begin to understand themselves in the context of — and in comparison, to — their peers. Where before school was merely frustrating, now kids may wonder why certain things appear to come easily to others. They may feel like they’re working twice as hard as those around them, and understandably, they may think this is unfair.

Kids also become more self-conscious at this age and might feel like their deficits are on display. This can look like a kid who doesn’t want to raise their hand in class, but it can also look like a kid who plays by themselves at recess. When a child can’t solve a math problem or gets called out for not finishing an assignment, it’s easy for them to go from “I feel dumb” to “Nobody is going to like me,” Omansky notes.

Kids with learning challenges can also struggle with social skills, such as following the thread of a conversation or finding the right words to respond. They sometimes fumble social cues, and given enough negative feedback, might avoid socializing altogether.

Some kids draw attention away from their challenges by acting out. Being perceived as funny or rebellious might even bolster your self-esteem. But avoiding your challenges doesn’t make you feel any better about them, it just makes you more determined to hide them.

Hiding the signs

Rates of learning disorders are not significantly different among genders, but boys are more likely to be diagnosed because of their tendency to be disruptive in class — an obvious red flag. Girls, meanwhile, tend to withdraw, making identification harder.

“Girls are much more likely to quietly sit in the back of the class and try to sink into the ground,” Dr. Phillips says.

This translates to girls not receiving a learning disorder diagnosis or being diagnosed late. When LDs are overlooked, a child’s anxiety or depression can be the first recognized signs that they need help. “They might become highly anxious or more academically demoralized,” says Dr Phillips. “So, it might be the anxiety or depression that first brings them to clinical attention.”

It’s important for adults to empathize with this experience, too. “Well-intended parents and teachers don’t want to put a spotlight on a kid unnecessarily, but they may not be asking the right questions that would allow for further intervention or exploration,” says Omansky. When a child is anxious, unmotivated, or depressed, the adults in their lives should investigate if they might be struggling, she adds. “Kids don’t always have the skillset to know how to self-advocate and say, ‘I don’t understand.’”

A vicious cycle — how depression impacts learning

Depression can actually impact cognitive functions, making learning challenges more acute.

Research shows that depression can:

  • Slow information processing
  • Slow memory consolidation, or how your brain transforms the things you learn into long-term memories
  • Make it harder to pay attention and concentrate
  • Interfere with sleep, which can also be bad for your brain

It’s a vicious cycle — learning challenges contributing to depression, contributing to more challenges — but there are ways to interrupt it.

Classroom safety

How a child relates to their school environment can also affect how they learn and how they see themselves. This is a particularly important factor for Black children and other children of color, especially if they attend predominantly white schools. “If there’s a difference in skin color between kids and their teachers, they might enter the classroom with a different level of anxious arousal that they have to overcome in order to be fully engaged,” Dr. Phillips says.

If the school environment already makes you anxious, you’re more likely to shut down if learning is also a challenge. You might even develop a fear of going to school at all. Teachers should be aware that kids don’t experience school in a vacuum. They should understand the racial, cultural, demographic factors that impact kids, so kids feel safe enough to learn and ask for help if they need it.

Combining academic and emotional supports

Schools are beginning to embrace emotional supports for children with learning disorders. When kids feel defeated by their challenges, and resist learning because it makes them feel bad about themselves, academic support alone is not enough.

Increasingly, schools are using  social and emotional learning (SEL) techniques to help kids develop an awareness of the emotions that drive their behaviors — whether they are acting out, trying to disappear, or simply avoiding the tasks that are most difficult for them.

Kids can be taught strategies to manage big emotions around learning. Take kids with math learning disorders, who become anxious when asked to solve math problems. They tend to engage in negative self-talk — “I’m so bad at math. I’m going to fail this math test. I’m so stupid, I’m not going to get into college.”

The negative self-talk interferes with problem solving. “It taxes your working memory to the point where you can’t effectively problem solve,” explains Dr. Phillips. “So, you do poorly and then you see yourself as a bad math student.”

But kids can interrupt the cycle with a simple trick: saying the steps of the math problem as they do them. “If you’re verbally working through the steps, you can’t engage in negative self-talk and so you can’t tax the working memory system,” she adds.  “It’s very effective.”

The ability to embrace this kind of creative problem-solving is the secret weapon of having a learning disorder — but when a child shows signs of depression, it’s important to seek professional treatment. Understanding that emotional challenges and learning challenges are intertwined can help parents get kids the support they need.

 

This article was last reviewed or updated on December 29, 2023.