SCIE Research briefing 14: Helping parents with learning disabilities in their role as parents

Published February 2005

Introduction - What is the issue?

The topic of this briefing is parents with intellectual or learning disabilities and the support they may need to help them as parents. The extent to which a parent’s intellectual impairment will have a negative effect on their parenting has been hotly contested. However, it is not the aim of this briefing to weigh up the arguments in any detail. It is also acknowledged that services in local authorities tend to be organised according to either medical or social categories, rather than the more holistic reality of family life, and that parents with learning disabilities encounter many of the same social and organisational barriers as parents with other forms of disability or impairment. However, this briefing aims to bring together medical and social elements in a single document, and to address some of the specialist requirements of parents with learning disabilities.

This briefing is concerned only with summarising the policy, guidance and research literature on how parents with learning disabilities may be supported in their efforts to provide the best possible type of parenting for their children. This briefing is therefore "parent-centred", but may be read in conjunction with the briefing on young carers, which is "child-centred", as well as the briefing on parenting by parents with physical or sensory impairments. In combination, these briefings hopefully offer a balanced examination of the topic.

Key messages

  • Eligibility criteria are applied by social services to the parenting needs of all parents.
  • The parenting responsibilities and role of disabled parents needs to be recognised, and policies developed across community care services to support this role.
  • Potential barriers to the development and maintenance of specialised and/or multi-agency services for disabled parents include limited funding, a lack of skills among professionals for assessing and supporting parents with learning disabilities, negative attitudes about parents with learning disabilities, and tendencies to pass responsibility between children’s and adults services.
  • Parent training programmes for parents with learning disabilities focus on child care, child safety, and mother-child interaction. The results of research into the effectiveness of these programmes are inconclusive. However, home-based programmes do demonstrate some success and are preferred to "centre-based" programmes as a form of education.
  • The research has found a strong association between supportive social networks and the positive psychological well-being of parents with learning disabilities, but there is no research to demonstrate that such support networks have a beneficial effect on their parenting.
  • Parents with learning disabilities report positive attitudes towards self determination in initiatives to support them in their parenting. They also request that information about services and entitlements be made accessible in appropriate formats and locations.


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  • Helping parents with learning disabilities in their role as parents