Q. "My son is 12 and a seventh grader. He recently has been found to have a visual perceptual learning disability. He tests out very high in reading, but on the fifth-grade level in math.

"He has a lot of emotional problems, too. He was arrested for using marijuana at his old school prior to this testing. Also, he cannot relax or sleep at night.

"We've had him to a pediatrician to see if there are any physical problems, but he told us that our son only needs counseling. We have been going to family counseling the past couple of months, but would like to be sure we are exploring every possibility.

"He does well with adults on a one-to-one basis. He is polite, intelligent and charming, but his teacher says he is "annoying" in class and a cut-up and a clown. He has trouble with peers and seems to get along best with children who are out of the mainstream -- particularly the non-jocks.

"He avoids competitive sports. He's good in swimming, but won't compete. He's good on stage and his creative writing is wonderful.

"We would appreciate any help you might suggest to help our son like himself better and help us understand what he is going through."

A. Most children are going to experiment a little with cigarettes, alcohol or marijuana and probably all three -- but usually not as young as 12 nor openly enough to be arrested.

Your child is lucky though; he has parents who want to help him "like himself better." That's the heart of the matter. Many children go through such rotten wrestling matches with their self-esteem it's almost as if they were trying to stomp it out.

This wrestling, of course, is why your son acts like a clown in class -- playing the fool before anyone might think he really was one. Another child might turn into the class bully or the loner or even the angel who always does everything right. In each case the child is asking for help.

By all means continue family therapy. Each relationship in a family is built like a tower of blocks: another day, another block. The stack is bound to get shaky from time to time and will have to be straightened out. A psychotherapist is the best person to show you how.

And by going with your child, as a family venture, you're telling him that you need help, too, which is as painful as it is true. If one person in the family is in difficulty, everyone is contributing to it, either by their action -- or their inaction. It's so wise to take care of it now.

It's also wise to keep checking into other possibilities.

Sleeping problems, although classic signs of psychological problems, can have other causes, too, so you might want a consulting opinion with a doctor who is strong in nutrition or biochemistry. As more and more doctors are beginning to realize, there are few problems in the mind that aren't also in the body and few problems in the body that don't also affect the mind.

When a parent sees a chronic problem in a child -- physical or psychological -- this holistic investigation should be followed. The body, the mind and the soul are interlocked.

As for competition in sports: Please don't worry about it. Obviously, you have an extremely competitive child. If he weren't, he wouldn't be competing so hard for attention in class.

A child, however, must learn to depend on himself before he can dare to let a team depend on him. So he needs to compete against himself: swimming, ice skating, biking, horseback riding, skiing and sailing, if you have that sort of money.

Because self-esteem is built on accomplishments, your child needs to do most what he does best. This is true of all children, but particularly one who is learning disabled.

That's why drama and creative writing are a lot more important for him than math.

Help him find a Saturday drama class, or an amateur theatrical group where he can help backstage if he can't get a part. You also can give a special present -- a ticket to the second balcony at the National Theatre for a Saturday matinee, and if you can afford it, another ticket for a friend. It doesn't cost a great deal more than a first-run movie, but a stage play seems to stick in a child's mind for years longer than a film. And it's such a grown-up thing to do.

Make sure he has a lot of books to read, too, and look for ones that will appeal to the clown in him: P.G. Wodehouse, Robert Benchley, Thorne Smith and that blessed fellow, James Thurber. Even when he has all the self-esteem in the world, your son still will rely on humor; let him learn from the masters.

Every time you encourage a child's natural inclinations you also are saying, "You're great!" and that is just what he needs to hear.

By giving him the tacit permission to be himself, you and your husband are giving him something which is essential for him to have every day: some unconditional acceptance from the two people he loves best. This will help him endure junior high, which is such a tough time.

And to help you endure it, there is an excellent book by Eric W. Johnson, the kind of junior high teacher every child should have. It's called "How to Live Through Junior High" (J.B. Lippincott; $8.95). Although not well-known, the library should have it, or a bookseller can order it for you.

Special attention: If another school holiday is hanging over you like a plumb bob, consider a parent-child tour of Mt. Vernon on Feb. 16. It's free, in honor of Washington's birthday, and, as usual, open from 9-4:30. There also will be a new children's book for sale there, called "The Children of Mt. Vernon" (Doubleday, $4.95), written by Miriam Anne Bourne and illustrated by Gloria Kamen, both from Washington. Although it's a guidebook, it's pretty zingy.