Parenting with Learning Disabilities

 4th Jan 2017

Parenting is hard.

parentingWe make no bones about it. It is the toughest, most challenging, most thankless job that parents wouldn’t have any other way.

Whether it’s 4am feeds, toilet training, negotiating the emotional quagmire of the preschool years or all the adventures beyond it is a fascinating, harrowing, wonderful, stressful, rewarding experience.

However, what if you’re a parent with a learning disability?

In the UK roughly 7% of adults with learning disabilities are parents but sadly 40% of all parents with learning disabilities are unable to live with their children.

This demographic are also more likely to experience mental illness, social isolation, poverty and communication difficulties. 

Sadly the challenges don’t stop there. Expectant mothers with learning disabilities are more likely to give birth to premature and under weight babies. They are also more likely to experience severe anxiety, stress and depression.

Parents with learning disabilities are also stigmatised as too immature or unfit to be parents which can lead to pressure from family members to abort the pregnancy or give the baby up for adoption.

So if parenting was hard, parenting with a learning disability presents it’s own set of challenges

The Legal Framework

A person with a learning disability, just like anyone else, has the legal right to get married without parental permission when they are aged 18 or over given that both they and their partner have the capacity to consent.

They are also legally entitled to become parents if they wish and have a family life, but they may require considerable help to do this.

mothers-loveThere is a lot of prejudice against parents with a learning disability and as a result they more frequently than other parents have their children taken away from them.

However, there are a number of laws that protect the family unit. For example, UN Convention on the Rights of the Child asserts the right of children to not be separated from their parents unless it is for their own good.

Other legislation also supports the right to appropriate support for families; for example the Children Act 1989 or Human Rights Act 1998.  There is also lots of good practical advice for professionals undertaking Parenting Capacity assessments for parents with learning disabilities.


All parents need support no matter their circumstances. A support network of friends, family and fellow parents help you get through those tough days. This is no different for parents with learning disabilities. 

Further more, specialist services and support groups are available and represent a tremendous source of support for all parties. 

Parenting groups specifically tailored to people with learning disabilities are available to help teach parents the skills they need and include practical demonstrations and activities.


There are a number of ways you can assist someone with learning disabilities to pick up the skills and the knowledge they need to be an effective parent, whatever stage of parenting they are at.

Some parents may need to re-engage services throughout their parenting journey but the important thing is that they are actively working towards successful parenting.

When working with someone with any kind of learning disability, the first step is recognising the most effective ways they learn. 

Getting this right will be the difference between the parent/s engaging the service and not.
One-to-one teaching is a proven teaching method for people of all developmental levels. It allows for greater flexibility and more detailed practical sessions for things like safely sterilising bottles or effective feeding technqiues.

One-to-one sessions can also reinforce what was covered in group sessions, enhancing the learning experience.

Alternatively instruction DVDs followed by discussions may work better. The important thing is not to railroad the individual to learn in a way that doesn’t work for them.

The information won’t go in and they’re less likely to engage in the future.


Often times the inbalance of power that exist between the individual and their support circle means people with learning disabilities can sometimes find it difficult to express themselves, ask questions or challenge something they don’t like.

Making sure they are regularly asked what they want, if they understand and are happy with what has been discussed is important to establishing an inclusive experience.

Don’t take the answer at face value. If you feel they are withholding through anxiety or fear or being ridiculed, go through it again.

It is also useful to repeat the points they make to you to ensure what has been said is understood fully.
Choose your wording carefully as information can be taken literatlly which, in turn can lead to confusion or a lack of understanding. Avoid jargon and idioms where possible.

Making information as digestable as possible, supported with resources containing simple words, images and clear ordering information.

This will help with preparedness, organisation and reduce risk to the child or children.

Because parents with learning difficulties are less likely to ask questions or admit to not understanding, it is important to devise methods of going over the information again without appearing patronising.

The object of the exercise, after all, is not to make someone feel inferior but empowered.

If you need more advice regarding supporting people with learning disabilities or would like to explore ways in which Encompass can help, contact us today.

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