Unfortunately for some children, dyslexia and anxiety go hand in hand.
From word go, we’re told how important it is to read, write and spell but for some kids, this doesn’t simply ‘come naturally! Imagine reading is one of your biggest struggles because the words lift up and move around. Imagine not being able spell because you’ve never understood the concept of phonics and imagine finding writing so painful that writing a paragraph leaves you exhausted.
- You know it should be easy – everyone can read, right?
- You should enjoy it – reading opens up a whole new world, right?
- It’s only a few words on a page – even 5 year olds can do it, right?
Re-evaluate the focus
It’s time we change the focus of learning for kids who suffer with dyslexia. For some kids, instead of opening up new worlds, reading only opens up fear and anxiety. Instead of focusing on what they can do, they’re forced on a daily basis to focus on what they can’t. They struggle every day with tasks that friends and family seem to be able to do with ease – things that we all take for granted such as following instructions, finding the right words to use in a conversation, remembering daily tasks.
A child with dyslexia needs time to process words and sounds, yet they are often forced to keep up within a classroom situation. Kids can’t rationalise things as adults can. It’s up to us as parents and also the schools to find a different approach to learning for them. What works?
Fight or Flight
We need to build their confidence rather than pointing out their failings on a daily basis. It’s no wonder many children suffer from dyslexia and anxiety. When put into the same stressful situation time after time, day after day, our bodies react with fight or flight:
- Fight – aggression, argumentative
- Flight – avoidance, daydreaming, being distracted
Therefore, it’s so important to understand the effects of both dyslexia and anxiety.
Anxiety affects the same cognitive abilities that people with dyslexia struggle with. But not only that, anxiety can also affect higher-order thinking skills such logic reasoning. This is typically a skill that dyslexics are extremely good at but with the onset of anxiety, that strength is reduced to a weakness.
The most common cognitive abilities weaker in those with dyslexia include:
- Phonological awareness (identifying words and sounds)
- Short-term memory (dealing with new information)
- Working memory (processing new and old information at the same time)
- Rapid naming
- Hand-eye coordination
- Visual processing (interpreting and giving a name to what you see)
Common side effects of anxiety include:
- An inability to concentrate for a long time
- A reduction in short-term memory
- A reduction in working memory
- Inability to process information effectively
- Lack of phonological awareness
- A change in spatial awareness
- An increase in muscle tension (making it harder to do things such as writing)
- A shut-down of higher-order thinking skills
- Hyper-sensitivity to the environment including colours, sounds and light.
When dyslexia and anxiety are seen together, a vicious circle appears. The more anxious a dyslexic child is, the more pronounced their symptoms of dyslexia appear to be. It is therefore absolutely crucial that we do everything we can to manage a child’s anxiety so that their learning can – and will -improve.
What to look out for
Anxiety can be difficult to spot – especially in children who often can’t explain how they feel. Symptoms are physical or emotional (or both) but not always obvious.
The most common signs to look out for include:
- Repetitive behaviour
- Rapid breathing
- Increased heart rate
- Dilated pupils
- Constant headaches
- Stomach pains
- Sleep issues
- Not wanting to go to school
- Lack of enthusiasm with regards to homework or trying anything new
- Tearful and clingy – often needs more reassurance than normal
- Aggression and resistance – outbursts of anger
Not all children with dyslexia suffer from anxiety and not all children with anxiety suffer from dyslexia, but they often go hand in hand. If you are at all worried, seek professional help.
How to help your anxious child
As with dyslexia, and other learning difficulties, there is no universal solution to anxiety. Every child who suffers from both dyslexia and anxiety needs support in different areas.
However there are really important ways to support your child including:
- Be open – talk to your child about how they’re feeling and help them to recognise signs of anxiety. Help them to understand the nature of their dyslexia and why they might be confused or struggling with certain issues.
- Focus on their strengths – while of course they find certain things difficult every child has enormous strengths in other areas. These strengths will help them enormously as they get older and realise that whatever path they take they can succeed.
- They need to really understand the phrase ‘slow and steady wins the race’. It doesn’t matter how long they take. They will get there. It will just take a bit longer.
- Never overload your child with homework. Home needs to be their sanctuary. Try to keep work at home fun and different to school. (obviously not so easy in times of lockdown!)
- Ensure they get the support at school – work with your school to make sure there are plans in place to support them in a learning environment. Ask the teacher to send home manageable amounts of homework with achievable targets
- Have fun – if your child is particularly anxious, it’s really important to try to stop the cycle. Take them on an outing or let them enjoy an activity they love. It doesn’t matter what it is as long as they focus on what makes them happy for a while.
- Eat well – healthy, nutritious food and keeping rehydrated will always help anxiety. Cutting down on sugar is very important.
- Sleep well – it goes without saying that a good night’s sleep is crucial to dealing with anxiety.
- Mindfulness techniques – learning coping mechanisms such as breathing techniques and yoga is a great way to help a child cope. Taking some time out from a stressful day to calmly sit, breathe deeply and clear the mind is so very important.
- Talk to your GP – if anxiety levels seem to be rising or severely impacting day-to-day life, it’s vital to seek professional help. Your GP can recommend a child psychologist or psychiatrist if required.