Effect of Learning Disabilities on a Teen's Mental Health

Effect of Learning Disabilities on a Teen's Mental Health

All parents want to see their child succeed in life, and a successful future often hinges upon being successful where education is concerned. Unfortunately, learning disabilities can disrupt a teen’s potential to succeed in the classroom and down the road when they become an adult. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as many as 17 percent of children between the ages of 3 and 17 have at least one developmental disability, which can impair learning. Learning disabilities specifically affect as much as 10 percent of the entire population.

To better understand how to help a teen that may have challenges in or out of the classroom, it is important to understand the difference and how the two are linked.

What Is A Learning Disability?

The exact definition of a learning disability is something experts don’t always agree on. According to the American Psychiatry Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), a learning disability is one of three types of issues, including: 

  • Dyslexia – An inability to read and spell well
  • Dysgraphia – An inability to write 
  • Dyscalculia – An inability to perform math calculations 

While the DSM lists these three conditions as learning disabilities, the federal government actually takes a broader stance on the matter when it comes to determining who qualifies for special education.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) says learning disabilities are disorders affecting psychological processes associated with learning. IDEA includes conditions like developmental aphasia, perceptual handicaps, and brain injury. Technically, this would mean conditions like ADHD and autism spectrum disorder are considered learning disabilities according to IDEA. 

The Link Between Learning Disabilities and Intellectual or Developmental Disabilities

To further complicate clear understanding, learning disabilities (LDs) and intellectual disabilities (IDs) are oftentimes confused, but the two are not the same thing.

Individuals who have a learning disability can actually boast an average or even an above-average IQ (intelligence quotient, which equates to reasoning ability).

Individuals who have intellectual disabilities usually have limitations where intellectual functioning is concerned, which often means a lack of reasoning ability and possibly a lower IQ. 

Certain developmental disabilities (DDs) are often linked to learning disabilities. In other words, if a child has been diagnosed with a developmental disability, there is a good chance they will also struggle with one or more learning disabilities.

For example, of the many children diagnosed with ADHD, as many as 45 percent also have dyslexia and 11 percent have dyscalculia. 

Some of the more typical developmental disabilities include: 

  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) 
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) 
  • Central Auditory Processing Disorder (CAPD)


Of course, some developmental disabilities  are purely physical. For example, a child that is born blind or deaf also has a developmental disability, but they may not always have a specific learning disability; they must only learn in a different way. 


What Causes a Learning Disability?

The underlying cause of a learning disability usually arises from some level of atypical brain development, but may also be related to both genetics and environmental factors. For example, a teen who has issues with executive function related to ADHD may have abnormal brain development and family history. 

Every type of learning disability has one thing in common: the brain is processing information in a different way than what would otherwise be considered normal. Several brain-imaging studies have shown that people with learning disabilities lack activity in areas of the brain that would normally be active while doing certain tasks. 

It can be especially difficult to target learning disability problems in educational settings because the underlying cause can be so unique depending on the child and co-occurring conditions. For example, if a teen has ADHD and dyslexia, the ADHD must be addressed in order to better manage issues with dyslexia. This is why so many teens who have a learning disability often struggle in school. 

As many as 45 % of children diagnosed with ADHD also have dyslexia and 11 % have dyscalculia.

Psychological Effects of Learning Disabilities

A substantial amount of research has shown that teens and children with learning disabilities can face a heightened risk of psychological distress like: 

  • Low academic self-concept
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Ineffective social behaviors


These disabilities can also exacerbate any existing emotional concerns. For example, a teen that already deals with anxiety may face worsening anxiety if they also have a learning disability. Likewise, emotional problems can amplify learning disabilities; the symptoms of a specific disability may be more persistent because of the emotional problem. 

Signs of Learning Disability

Usually, signs of a learning disorder will emerge early in childhood. However, these issues are not always addressed at an early age, and, oftentimes, the problem is not apparent enough that parents or educators take steps to help. Even more concerning, symptoms between learning disabilities and development or intellectual disabilities can sometimes overlap, which may lead to a misdiagnosis in early childhood. For example, a child may show symptoms of ADHD but may also have Asperger’s.

Teens with a learning disability may: 

  • Have issues with poor performance in school 
  • Show signs of disinterest in education 
  • Lack fundamental social skills 
  • Withdrawal or aggression 
  • Behavioral issues at school 
  • Have a hard time processing information 
  • Be especially disorganized 


Every learning disability can actually present itself in its own unique way. This is in part because there is such a high likelihood that another disability or disorder could be co-occurring. However, the variances in symptoms can also simply be related to the child; every teen can have their own way of reacting to challenges and frustrations.

How to Help a Teenager with Learning Difficulties

Learning disabilities are lifelong challenges. These are not disabilities that can necessarily be “cured” or “fixed.” Nevertheless, appropriate support from caregivers, educators, and counselors can ensure the teen can see success in school and in their future when it comes to finding work or a career. 

There is an obvious relationship between learning disabilities and risks to emotional health, academic achievement, and self-esteem. Therefore, if a parent or caregiver suspects their teen has a learning disability, it is important to intervene and make sure the child gets adequate attention. 

The intervention for learning disabilities can look different depending on the situation. For some teens, simply the act of getting a proper diagnosis can mean a great deal because this can help the teen see that whatever they are dealing with may be something that is beyond their control. Likewise, obtaining a proper diagnosis can give insight into how to proceed to build a platform for success to support the future. 

Some students will perform better in alternate educational settings where more focus can be given to the teen’s unique ways of learning. Remember, students with learning disabilities can qualify for special education programs under the IDEA program set forth by the federal government. Further, some parents opt for something like a therapeutic boarding school, especially if a learning disability and other behavior issues are at play. 

Need help finding the right treatment program for your teen with a learning or developmental disability? Reach out to us at At Risk Youth to get more information about the most fitting programs for your child. 

Their daughter has developmental and learning disabilities, was failing school and was an at-risk youth. Watch this video as they share their personal experience and discuss how residential treatment changed their daughter and their family.

Questions and Answers Related to Learning Disabilities

What are the most common learning disabilities?
The most common learning disabilities are:
  • – Dyslexia
  • – Dysgraphia
  • – Dyscalculia
  • – Auditory processing disorder
  • – Language processing disorder
  • – Nonverbal learning disabilities
  • – Visual perceptual/visual motor deficit
Is ADHD a learning disability?

Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) is not considered a learning disability, it is a developmental disability, but it often gets labeled as both. 

How is a learning disability diagnosed?

The diagnosis of learning disabilities is done through a process called evaluation and assessment. The evaluator will look at all aspects of the person’s life to find out what skills they have and what skills they don’t have.

The evaluator will then compare these skills with other people who are the same age and intelligence level as them to see if they are falling behind in any areas.

What the treatment methods for a learning disability?

Learning disabilities are often treated by speech therapists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, and psychologists. Some of the treatment methods for a learning disability are:

  • Speech therapy: Speech therapists can help with articulation and language disorders. They can also teach the person how to use their voice to communicate more effectively.

  • Occupational therapy: Occupational therapists help people who have difficulty with daily tasks like dressing themselves or cooking food. They also work on fine motor skills, handwriting, and other activities that require coordination.

  • Physical therapy: Physical therapy focuses on improving mobility and strength in order to prevent future injury or disability. It may include exercises for stretching or strengthening muscles, as well as devices that promote movement in specific joints of the body.

  • Psychotherapy: Psychologists focus on mental

  • – Medications: There are various medications commonly used to treat a variety of mental health conditions. Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and benzodiazepines can help alleviate symptoms for people with depression or severe anxiety. Treatment for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may also include stimulant or non-stimulant medications that will help children to concentrate and focus.

  • Alternative medicine: The medical community is still grappling with the question of whether or not complementary and alternative medicine can be a substitute for treatments from a doctor. Alternative treatments like dietary changes, vitamin use, eye exercises, neurofeedback and the use of technological devices.

How can parents support teens with learning disabilities?

Learning disabilities are not always diagnosed or handled correctly in school. Many teens who have a learning disability also have a mental health disorder that needs to be treated. When these two problems co-exist, they can negatively impact one another.

Parents can help their children to:


    • Become more self-aware and build self-confidence


    • – Being proactive by helping them to make choices, self-advocate in school and seeking help from an adult when in doubt.


    • – Help their child persevere, they may need to work a little harder on specific tasks and encourage them to keep going when facing challenges and not give up.


  • – Help them set goals, both short and long term and then celebrate when they achieve them.  Check in with them often to see if they need help to meet those goals.









Speak to an expert about Learning Disabilities and Teen Mental Health: A Closer Look and how it may help your child.

Connect with an Admissions Counselor who specializes in Learning Disabilities and Teen Mental Health: A Closer Look to help your teen begin their recovery today.

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