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In 2009, 3.1% of Australians were living with learning difficulties. For those who are parents, it can be a lack of suitable support services, rather than their disability, that makes it hard to cope. Read these parents’ stories and learn more about the challenges of parenting with learning difficulties.

Profile of Tony

Tony has a 10-year-old son and a daughter who’s nearly 12. His children spend time with him during the week at his house in Glenroy, Victoria. Tony is 46 years old.

‘My kids live with their mum most of the time – we’ve been separated for three and a half years, but before that, we were married for 14 years. We’re lucky because we’ve got a really good relationship and we didn’t go through the courts to sort out custody. We agreed that she would stay in the house with the kids until they’re old enough to do their own thing. They’re happy living there and going to school.

‘My ex-wife has been great looking after the kids and she understands that I need support in certain areas. I have a learning disorder, problems with reading and writing. This means I can’t help the kids as much as I’d like to with their homework. It can be very frustrating for me when they want me to do things that I just can’t manage. When they were little it wasn’t as much of a problem – I changed nappies and helped around the house as much as I could while my ex-wife was working.

‘Just recently we came to a new arrangement where one of the kids stays at my house once a week. The goal is to have both children once a week, but we’re still working towards that. Before, they didn’t want to stay with me because there was nothing to do and they got bored.

‘But we did a parenting program over the last 18 months and it taught us how to keep the kids amused at my house – now my place is more kid-friendly. My daughter loves craft and making things so we’ve got an activities box for that. On the other hand, my son just wants to go go go until he drops – bike riding, cricket, Play Station, playing with other kids. He’s got ADHD and he can get frustrated and angry. The parenting program also taught me how to deal with his ADHD and how to deal with my own stress and frustration by working out strategies to calm us both down. Now both the kids say they love coming to stay with me and it helps give my ex-wife a break. We couldn’t have got there without doing the program.

‘I’ve loved watching my kids grow up and change. They know that I spend a lot of my time volunteering with the SES and at a nursing home, and they understand that sometimes our visiting arrangements need to change at the last minute. They also love that I do this work and they can see that helping people is a good thing. This year my goal is to do a TAFE course in reading and writing so I can help them more as they go through school.

‘I think I’ve taught them, through the things I do and the way I try to work things out, not to give up easily and to give everything a go. My main wish for the future is for them to be happy and do the best they can. My dad never forced us to do anything and he let us make our own decisions about what we wanted to be. I want my kids to do the same and I want them to appreciate life as they go along. That’s what’s most important to me.’

Profile of James

James, aged 51, and Donna, aged 36, are the parents of 16-month-old Daniel. Both parents have learning difficulties. They live in Heidelberg, Victoria.

‘For ages I used to walk past Donna’s house and ask her to go out with me. Every time I did she’d tell me to go away. Finally though, we ended up going to the movies and her mum made her nephew go too, to keep an eye on me. We hit it off after that. Eventually I asked her to marry me and when she said yes, I reckon I was the happiest bloke in the whole of Heidelberg.

‘We’d always wanted to have a baby. When Daniel came, he changed my life. He’s the best little boy, even his grandma said he’s special. He loves his grandma. She lives across the road and helps us out a lot. You know how much he loves his nan because the first words he said were Nan-Nan. His grandma helps Donna through the day with all the washing and cleaning and housework. We also get a lot of help from our family friend Peter. Peter’s my best friend and he knows a lot about kids because he’s had them already and he tells me what to do. My mother has only seen Daniel twice since he was born. She doesn’t want to believe he’s alive. This makes me really upset because she can’t see what a beautiful boy he is.

‘Ever since he was born, Daniel’s been a perfect kid. Every night I put him to sleep at 8 pm and he wakes up at 8 am. He’s a beautiful alarm clock and gets me up for work. I work on different machinery and I get the disability pension because I have epilepsy. So I make money. But I don’t worry about money, it isn’t important. What’s important to me are that my wife is happy and my beautiful son has everything he needs.

‘When I’m around Daniel I never smoke or drink. I don’t want to do things like that when I’m around him. I change his nappy, but most of the time Donna does that. She’s found that being a mum is very hard work and she gets tired, so when I’m at home I do as much as I can to help around the house.

‘The best part about being a dad for the first time is getting to come home to my wife and boy at the end of the day and having a nice home-cooked meal together. I would do anything for them. We do everything together and I only let a couple of other people look after him. Sometimes he goes to child care for two or three hours while Donna and I go shopping. He eats everything we eat – if we eat cereal, he eats some, and if we have vegies and sausage, he wants some too. Then we give him a bath and a bottle of milk and put him to bed at the same time every night. He never goes hungry, he always eats everything and always has everything he needs.’

Share your ideas and experiences with other parents in our online forums.

Parenting with learning difficulties at a glance

  • Learning difficulties is generally defined as having limitations in intelligence (an IQ of less than 70) and significant limitations in the skills needed to live and work in the community, including communication, self-care, social skills, safety and self-direction. These limitations are evident before a person turns 18 years old.
  • About 3% of the population are thought to have learning difficulties.
  • It’s thought that approximately 1-2% of families with children aged 0-17 years include at least one parent with learning difficulties.
  • People with learning difficulties can have a lot more difficulty than others in understanding ideas, solving problems, concentrating, remembering and learning new things.
  • Intellectual disability can result from damage to the brain before or after birth, because of either genetic causes or environmental factors.

Challenges of parenting with learning difficulties

People with learning difficulties can be good parents.

One of the biggest challenges people with learning difficulties face is simply battling the view that they can’t make good parents. For a long time it’s been assumed that parents with learning difficulties can’t fulfil the duties of a parent and are likely to neglect or abuse their children. But research has shown that having learning difficulties doesn’t lead to being a bad parent – and it doesn’t necessarily lead to neglect and abuse.

One of the reasons this view has been around for so long is because most research on parents with disability has focused on the failings and difficulties faced by these parents, and the problems observed in their children. What these parents can do, the positive aspects of their lives and the positive outcomes in their children, have mostly been ignored.

External factors
It’s been shown that IQ doesn’t determine a parent’s ability to raise children.

As with all parents, some parents with learning difficulties adapt to the job better than others. Instead, a combination of commonly experienced factors that make it hard to live in the community are more likely to affect a person’s ability to parent. These include:

  • poverty, unemployment and substandard housing
  • high stress, poor treatment throughout life, depression and poor self-esteem
  • poor physical health
  • no-one to look to as a role model for parenting
  • inability to get hold of parenting information that is useful or useable
  • not enough friends and family to help with advice, and practical and emotional support
  • not enough formal services for parents with intellectual disability.

People with learning difficulties can make good parents, provided they are given the right amount and type of support for the challenges they face.

These challenges are often related to how much difficulty a parent has in coping with everyday responsibilities and whether they’re affected by additional medical conditions. These factors can make the task of raising a child more difficult. Responsibilities such as ensuring the health and safety of a child, and providing suitable child care, can become difficult too. The degree of these difficulties depends on the level of a parent’s disability and the amount of social support a parent receives.

Worries about being judged
Because parents with learning difficulties have a wide range of capabilities and confidence in their parenting roles, every person’s situation is different. In fact, most people with learning difficulties will often display no outward signs of their difficulties.

It’s believed that many parents with learning difficulties don’t ask for help from support agencies because they’re worried they’ll be judged as poor parents, and that their children will be removed by welfare agencies. These fears are understandable because the service system in place is still dominated by the view that people with learning difficulties are unfit to parent.

Getting support services
There’s a lack of suitable support services for people with learning difficulties who are raising children – this is demonstrated by the high rate of parents with learning difficulties involved in the welfare system. When assistance is provided by welfare agencies, it’s done on a case-by-case basis. But often this assistance fails the parent by not teaching the necessary parenting skills.

It’s been shown that when the right sorts of teaching methods are used to instruct new parents, they can develop the right skills to successfully raise children.

For further help

Healthy Start is a national capacity-building strategy that aims to improve health and wellbeing outcomes for children whose parents have learning difficulties. It runs activities such as forums and online discussions and works with practitioners, managers, researchers and policy-makers to support parents with learning difficulties and their children. The website has resources for both parents and professionals. 

  • Last updated or reviewed 24-04-2014