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Social and Emotional Problems Related to Dyslexia

By: Michael Ryan, M.D. and International Dyslexia Association (2004)

Do emotional disorders cause dyslexia?

Research indicates that dyslexia is caused by biological factors not emotional or family problems. Samuel T. Orton, M.D. was one of the first researchers to describe the emotional aspects of dyslexia. According to his research, the majority of dyslexic preschoolers are happy and well adjusted. Their emotional problems begin to develop when early reading instruction does not match their learning style. Over the years, the frustration mounts as classmates surpass the dyslexic student in reading skills. Recent research funded by the National Institute of Health has identified many of the neurological and cognitive differences that contribute to dyslexia. The vast majority of these factors appear to be caused by genetics rather than poor parenting or childhood depression or anxiety.

Why is dyslexia discouraging and frustrating?

The frustration of children with dyslexia often centers on their inability to meet expectations. Their parents and teachers see a bright, enthusiastic child who is not learning to read and write. Time and again, dyslexics and their parents hear, "He's such a bright child; if only he would try harder." Ironically, no one knows exactly how hard the dyslexic is trying.

The pain of failing to meet other people's expectations is surpassed only by dyslexics' inability to achieve their goals. This is particularly true of those who develop perfectionistic expectations in order to deal with their anxiety. They grow up believing that it is "terrible" to make a mistake.

However, their learning disability, almost by definition means that these children will make many "careless" or "stupid" mistakes. This is extremely frustrating to them, as it makes them feel chronically inadequate.

The dyslexic frequently has problems with social relationships. These can be traced to causes:

  • Dyslexic children may be physically and socially immature in comparison to their peers. This can lead to a poor self-image and less peer acceptance.
  • Dyslexics' social immaturity may make them awkward in social situations.
  • Many dyslexics have difficulty reading social cues. They may be oblivious to the amount of personal distance necessary in social interactions or insensitive to other people's body language.
  • Dyslexia often affects oral language functioning. Affected persons may have trouble finding the right words, may stammer, or may pause before answering direct questions. This puts them at a disadvantage as they enter adolescence, when language becomes more central to their relationships with peers.

My clinical observations lead me to believe that, just as dyslexics have difficulty remembering the sequence of letters or words, they may also have difficulty remembering the order of events. For example, let us look at a normal playground interaction between two children. A dyslexic child takes a toy that belongs to another child, who calls the dyslexic a name. The dyslexic then hits the other child. In relating the experience, the dyslexic child may reverse the sequence of events. He may remember that the other child called him a name, and he then took the toy and hit the other child.

This presents two major difficulties for the dyslexic child. First, it takes him longer to learn from his mistakes. Second, if an adult witnessed the events, and asks the dyslexic child what happened, the child seems to be lying.

Unfortunately, most interactions between children involve not three events, but 15 to 20. With his sequencing and memory problems, the dyslexic may relate a different sequence of events each time he tells the tale. Teachers, parents, and psychologists conclude that he is either psychotic or a pathological liar.

The inconsistencies of dyslexia produce serious challenges in a child's life. There is a tremendous variability in the student's individual abilities. Although everyone has strengths and weaknesses, the dyslexic's are greatly exaggerated. Furthermore, the dyslexic's strengths and weaknesses may be closely related.

I once worked with a young adult who received a perfect score on the Graduate Record Exam in mathematics. He could do anything with numbers except remember them. The graduate students he tutored in advanced statistics or calculus had great difficulty believing that he could not remember their telephone numbers.

These great variations produce a "roller coaster" effect for dyslexics. At times, they can accomplish tasks far beyond the abilities of their peers. At the next moment, they can be confronted with a task that they cannot accomplish. Many dyslexics call this "walking into black holes." To deal with these kinds of problems, dyslexics need a thorough understanding of their learning disability. This will help them predict both success and failure. Dyslexics also perform erratically within tasks. That is, their errors are inconsistent. For example, I once asked a dyslexic adult to write a hundred word essay on television violence. As one might expect he misspelled the word "television" five times. However, he misspelled it a different way each time. This type of variation makes remediation more difficult.

Finally, dyslexics' performance varies from day to day. On some days, reading may come fairly easily. However, another day, they may be barely able to write their own name. This inconsistency is extremely confusing not only to the dyslexic, but also to others in his environment.

Few other handicapping conditions are intermittent in nature. A child in a wheelchair remains there; in fact, if on some days the child can walk, most professionals would consider it a hysterical condition. However, for the dyslexic, performance fluctuates. This makes it extremely difficult for the individual to learn to compensate, because he or she cannot predict the intensity of the symptoms on a given day.

What does the dyslexic person feel?

Anxiety

Anxiety is the most frequent emotional symptom reported by dyslexic adults. Dyslexics become fearful because of their constant frustration and confusion in school. These feelings are exacerbated by the inconsistencies of dyslexia. Because they may anticipate failure, entering new situations can becomes extremely anxiety provoking.

Anxiety causes human beings to avoid whatever frightens them. The dyslexic is no exception. However, many teachers and parents misinterpret this avoidance behavior as laziness. In fact, the dyslexic's hesitancy to participate in school activities such as homework is related more to anxiety and confusion than to apathy.

Anger

Many of the emotional problems caused by dyslexia occur out of frustration with school or social situations. Social scientists have frequently observed that frustration produces anger. This can be clearly seen in many dyslexics.

The obvious target of the dyslexic's anger would be schools and teachers. However, it is also common for the dyslexic to vent his anger on his parents. Mothers are particularly likely to feel the dyslexic's wrath. Often, the child sits on his anger during school to the point of being extremely passive. However, once he is in the safe environment of home, these very powerful feelings erupt and are often directed toward the mother. Ironically, it is the child's trust of the mother that allows him to vent his anger. However, this becomes very frustrating and confusing to the parent who is desperately trying to help their child.

As youngsters reach adolescence, society expects them to become independent. The tension between the expectation of independence and the child's learned dependence causes great internal conflicts. The adolescent dyslexic uses his anger to break away from those people on which he feels so dependent.

Because of these factors, it may be difficult for parents to help their teenage dyslexic. Instead, peer tutoring or a concerned young adult may be better able to intervene and help the child.

Self image

The dyslexic's self–image appears to be extremely vulnerable to frustration and anxiety. According to Erik Erikson, during the first years of school, every child must resolve the conflicts between a positive self–image and feelings of inferiority. If children succeed in school, they will develop positive feelings about themselves and believe that they can succeed in life.

If children meet failure and frustration, they learn that they are inferior to others, and that their effort makes very little difference. Instead of feeling powerful and productive, they learn that their environment controls them. They feel powerless and incompetent.

Researchers have learned that when typical learners succeed, they credit their own efforts for their success. When they fail, they tell themselves to try harder. However, when the dyslexic succeeds, he is likely to attribute his success to luck. When he fails, he simply sees himself as stupid.

Research also suggests that these feelings of inferiority develop by the age of ten. After this age, it becomes extremely difficult to help the child develop a positive self–image. This is a powerful argument for early intervention.

Depression

Depression is also a frequent complication in dyslexia. Although most dyslexics are not depressed, children with this kind of learning disability are at higher risk for intense feelings of sorrow and pain. Perhaps because of their low self–esteem, dyslexics are afraid to turn their anger toward their environment and instead turn it toward themselves.

However, depressed children and adolescents often have different symptoms than do depressed adults. The depressed child is unlikely to be lethargic or to talk about feeling sad. Instead he or she may become more active or misbehave to cover up the painful feelings. In the case of masked depression, the child may not seem obviously unhappy. However, both children and adults who are depressed tend to have three similar characteristics:

  • First, they tend to have negative thoughts about themselves, i.e. a negative self–image.
  • Second, they tend to view the world negatively. They are less likely to enjoy the positive experiences in life. This makes it difficult for them to have fun.
  • Finally, most depressed youngsters have great trouble imagining anything positive about the future. The depressed dyslexic not only experiences great pain in his present experiences, but also foresees a life of continuing failure.

Family problems

Like any handicapping condition, dyslexia has a tremendous impact on the child's family. However, because dyslexia is an invisible handicap, these effects are often overlooked.

Dyslexia affects the family in a variety of ways. One of the most obvious is sibling rivalry. Non–dyslexic children often feel jealous of the dyslexic child, who gets the majority of the parents' attention, time, and money. Ironically, the dyslexic child does not want this attention. This increases the chances that he or she will act negatively against the achieving children in the family.

Specific developmental dyslexia runs in families. This means that one or both of the child's parents may have had similar school problems. When faced with a child who is having school problems, dyslexic parents may react in one of two ways. They may deny the existence of dyslexia and believe if the child would just buckle down, he or she could succeed. Or, the parents may relive their failures and frustrations through their child's school experience. This brings back powerful and terrifying emotions, which can interfere with the adult's parenting skills.

How can parents and teachers help?

During the past 25 years, I have interviewed many dyslexic adults. Some have learned to deal successfully with their learning problems, while others have not. My experiences suggest that in addition to factors such as intelligence and socio–economic status, other things affect the dyslexic's chances for success.

First, early in the child's life, someone has been extremely supportive and encouraging. Second, the young dyslexic found an area in which he or she could succeed. Finally, successful dyslexics appear to have developed a commitment to helping others.

Both teachers and parents need to offer consistent, ongoing encouragement and support. However, one rarely hears about this very important way to help youngsters.

I believe encouragement involves at least four elements. First, listening to children's feelings. Anxiety, anger and depression are daily companions for dyslexics. However, their language problems often make it difficult for them to express their feelings. Therefore, adults must help them learn to talk about their feelings.

Teachers and parents must reward effort, not just "the product". For the dyslexic, grades should be less important than progress.

When confronting unacceptable behavior, adults must not inadvertently discourage the dyslexic child. Words such as "lazy" or "incorrigible" can seriously damage the child's self–image.

Finally, it is important to help students set realistic goals for themselves. Most dyslexic students set perfectionistic and unattainable goals. By helping the child set an attainable goal, teachers can change the cycle of failure.

Even more important, the child needs to recognize and rejoice in his or her successes. To do so, he or she needs to achieve success in some area of life. In some cases, the dyslexic's strengths are obvious, and many dyslexics' self–esteem has been salvaged by prowess in athletics, art, or mechanics. However, the dyslexic's strengths are often more subtle and less obvious. Parents and teachers need to find ways to relate the child's interests to the demands of real life.

Finally, many successful dyslexic adults deal with their own pain by reaching out to others. They may do volunteer work for charities or churches, or choose vocations that require empathy and a social conscience. These experiences help dyslexics feel more positive about themselves and deal more effectively with their pain and frustration.

Many opportunities exist in our schools, homes and churches for dyslexics to help others. One important area is peer tutoring. If dyslexic students do well in math or science, they can be asked to tutor a classmate who is struggling.

Perhaps that student can reciprocate as a reader for the dyslexic student. Tutoring younger children, especially other dyslexics, can be a positive experience for everyone involved.

Helping dyslexics feel better about themselves and deal effectively with their feelings is a complex task.

First, caring adults must understand the cognitive and affective problems caused by dyslexia. Then they must design strategies that will help the dyslexic, like every other child, to find joy and success in academics and personal relationships.

About the author

Dr. Michael Ryan is a psychologist with a private practice in Grand Rapids, MI. He specializes in working with people with learning disabilities. A dyslexic himself, Dr. Ryan is a past president of the Michigan Branch of the International Dyslexia Association (IDA) and a former national vice president of IDA.

Ryan, Michael. Social and Emotional Problems Related to Dyslexia. International Dyslexia Association Fact Sheet series. © Copyright 2004, The International Dyslexia Association (IDA). IDA encourages the reproduction and distribution of this fact sheet. If portions of the text are cited, appropriate reference must be made. Fact sheets may not be reprinted for the purpose of resale.