The Link Between Learning Disabilities and Childhood Depression

August 2024

Most children struggle with schoolwork from time to time. Often, parents can help with words of encouragement or tutoring. However, for some children, struggles with schoolwork are ongoing. They may have a specific learning disability (SLD), a brain-based disorder that affects their ability to read, write, do math, or process thoughts. More than two million school-age children in the United States have an SLD, according to the National Center for Learning Disabilities. For children from prekindergarten through 12th grade, an SLD is the most common type of disability.

For these children, pep talks and tutoring aren’t enough. They need special education services during their school day. But children with learning disabilities may need mental health help, too. According to the Child Mind Institute, children with SLDs face an increased risk of depression compared to other kids. And their risk for depression increases as they get older.

Here’s why kids with learning disabilities are more likely to experience depression — and how to spot the warning signs so you can get your child the help they need.

Common learning disabilities

If you suspect your child has a learning disability, getting them a proper diagnosis — and then getting assistance that addresses their specific issues — can help them with their academic challenges and reduce their chances of experiencing depression and anxiety.

Here are some common learning disabilities that affect kids, along with their warning signs:

  • Dyscalculia. Your child is not able to understand numbers and learn math facts.
  • Dysgraphia. Your child has problems with handwriting and fine motor skills.
  • Dyslexia. Your child has problems with reading and language-based processing skills.
  • Nonverbal learning disabilities. Your child has a hard time reading nonverbal social cues, such as body language or facial expressions. They may also have poor coordination.
  • Oral/written language disorder and specific reading comprehension deficit. Your child struggles to understand what they read or hear. They have a hard time saying what they mean.

If you see these signs in your child, talk to their teacher or school counselor and reach out to their pediatrician. Keep in mind that children may actually have an undiagnosed vision problem that makes schoolwork more difficult. About one in four school-aged kids has an undiagnosed vision problem, according to Prevent Blindness.

How learning disabilities increase depression

The challenges kids face in school play a big role in how good or bad they feel about themselves. Children with an SLD face added struggles other kids their age don’t have to manage. This is especially true if they have an undiagnosed SLD or if they aren’t getting the specialized help they need in school.

Having an SLD can:

  • Affect a child’s sense of self-worth
  • Make them feel like they aren’t capable of doing well
  • Cause anxiety around schoolwork or homework
  • Cause them to feel embarrassed about their learning disability or about needing extra help or accommodations, such as more time to take a test
  • Cause them to withdraw from their peers or act out to hide their disability
  • Lead to teasing or bullying by other kids

These types of problems increase their risk of anxiety and depression, which, in turn, can make it harder for them to concentrate on schoolwork or remember things.

Signs of depression in children

Every parent needs to be aware of symptoms of depression in kids. This is especially true for parents of kids with learning disabilities because they are at a higher risk for depression.

Knowing what depression looks like can help you get your child the help they need. The National Institute of Mental Health lists these warning signs:

  • Decreased energy or fatigue, making your child seem tired all the time
  • Difficulty concentrating, working, remembering things, or making decisions
  • Difficulty sleeping, waking up earlier than usual, or sleeping more than usual
  • Feeling sad, anxious, or “empty”
  • Feelings of hopelessness, guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
  • Irritability and restlessness
  • Loss of interest in things they usually enjoy
  • Appetite and/or weight changes
  • Body aches and pains, including headaches, cramps, and digestive problems that have no known cause or don’t respond to treatment
  • Thoughts of self-harm, death, or suicide
  • Suicide attempts

If your child has symptoms of depression, contact a mental health professional. A school counselor or therapist is a good place to start.

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