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Emma Sterland
BY Emma Sterland

14 Mental Health Tips for Children with Learning Disabilities

A Mental health illness affects up to 40% of people with learning disabilities, compared to 25% of people in the general population. Social issues, such as lack of friends or fewer opportunities in life, can often be a contributing factor. While, for others it may be living with a long-term medical condition such as epilepsy or diabetes.

Identifying mental health problems in someone with special needs, can be challenging, but the key is noticing any changes in your child’s usual pattern of behavior. It’s important to know what is usual for your child, and to be aware of any significant changes, such as:

  • self-harming behaviors
  • withdrawal from usual activities & interests
  • repetitive or unusual behaviors
  • disturbed sleep patterns
  • increased anxiety
  • weight changes
  • less concern with personal hygiene
  • increased physical or verbal aggression
  • restlessness or fidgeting
  • frequent tummy aches or headaches

The Importance of Mental Health

Encouraging good mental health is important for all children, but particularly when your child has special needs.  Children need to develop the skills to understand and express their emotions from an early age. They need to develop strategies for coping with difficult situations, and ways of channeling energy appropriately.

The following tips for encouraging good mental health have been contributed to Scope by parents and professionals working with people with special needs. We hope you find them useful, and please do share your own!

1. Acknowledge and label feelings

If a child or adult cries, for example, tell them you understand they are sad and back this up with any communication aids you are using.

2. Express emotions

Encourage people to express and release their emotions in ways that suit them – whether that’s through art, music, movement etc.

3. Develop skills

Support children to develop the skills to understand and express their emotions from an early age, using pictures, signs and other communication aids.

4. Channel energy

If people express their feelings in physically aggressive ways try to channel this energy appropriately – for example through sport or banging a drum.

5. Don’t discourage self talk

Self-talk can often help a person with learning disabilities process their feelings effectively, so try not to discourage it.

6. Teach coping strategies

Teach strategies for coping with difficult situations, such as deep breathing, counting to 10 or down from 10.

7. Break card

Break cards are useful for allowing children or adults with special needs to leave a situation they find uncomfortable. They can use the card to tell people they want to leave.

8. What works for you?

Many people with special needs have their own unique way of coping. Find out what works for them.

9. Social stories

Develop social stories about how to deal with challenging situations.

10. Encourage friendships

Having friends and close social relationships is very important for people with learning disabilities. Loneliness is often a huge contributing factor to mental ill-health.

11. Worry box

Start a worry box with your child, especially if they have high anxiety levels. At the end of each day, talk about all the things they’re worrying about & encourage them to put them in the box. Every now and then open the box and talk about each worry, how your child is feeling and share some ways to handle the worry.

12. Redirect aggression

Try giving your child a punchbag or swing ball, so they can channel negative emotions in a safe way.

13. Find the message

Challenging behaviors are usually signs that your child is unhappy about something. Try and work out the message behind them.

14. Encourage meaningful choices

People with learning disabilities often experience a lack of control over their own lives. Try and support your child to make meaningful choices, to maximize their independence and to achieve their potential.


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Emma Sterland

Written on June 18, 2013 by:

Emma Sterland helps run the online community at Scope, a national UK-based disability charity, offering support for disabled people and their families. All the tips used in this post were contributed by members of the online community, and can be seen in the tips section of the community .
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