by Erik Newman, Ph.D., LP
One of the most common reasons why parents come to see me is that they want to know if their child has dyslexia. Dyslexia is a common neurodevelopmental disorder that is believed to affect 5-10% of children. When most people think of dyslexia, they think of difficulty reading accurately or fluently. Indeed, dyslexia is most typically characterized by difficulties in basic reading and reading-related skills such as decoding (i.e., sounding out words), sight-word reading, reading fluency, spelling, letter reversals (i.e., writing letters backward), letter transpositions (i.e., swapping the order of letters in words), and phonological processing (i.e., ability to recognize letters and discriminate speech sounds). However, dyslexia, like all neurodevelopmental disorders, can have emotional consequences as well. These emotional consequences, while different for every child, often follow a predictable trajectory when the child’s challenges and needs are not recognized and met early on. Below are seven ways in which dyslexia can increasingly impact children emotionally and behaviorally:
1. Increased Performance Anxiety: When children struggle to read, it can be very stressful to try to keep up with classroom and homework demands. “Simple” tasks place significant demands on their processing and response speed. As a result, these tasks often take much longer for children with dyslexia than they do for others and cause significantly more frustration.
2. Increased Test Anxiety: Children with dyslexia often dread taking tests. This is because, even in their stronger subjects, traditional test formats often require reading instructions, reading questions, and/or providing written responses. They experience all the demands on processing and responding described above, but with the added stress that tests are typically higher stakes activities that impact their grades to a greater degree.
3. Increased Social Anxiety: When children struggle to read, they often miss important information that the rest of the class is getting. Instead of asking for help, they might avoid participating in order to reduce the risk of exposing their perceived shortcomings. Eventually, they may even avoid their peers for fear of being teased, especially if their peers have already picked up on their challenges.
4. Lower Self-Esteem: Children with dyslexia often recognize that they’re not able to read as well or as quickly as their peers. Because reading is such a fundamental part of the early learning process, they do not necessarily recognize that their struggles are confined to reading. Rather, it can feel like they are struggling in school more broadly. This can cause children to believe that they are not smart, even when they are objectively quite intelligent and competent in many other areas.
5. Depression: When children have struggled long enough in their environment without getting the necessary help, they often begin to feel helpless. On some level, they recognize that they are attempting to function within a structure that is a poor fit for their educational needs and see no evidence that things can get any better. This can lead to more significant symptoms of depression.
6. School Avoidance: Eventually, some children who feel anxious, depressed, and hopeless about their situation become so anxious about going to school that they avoid it altogether. For younger children, this often takes the form of illness complaints, such as pain in their stomach, a headache or feeling sick. However, the longer they stay home, the harder it is to get them to go back. For teens, this can eventually lead to a desire to drop out of school.
7. Maladaptive Behaviors: When self-esteem suffers, children and adolescents often gravitate toward people and activities that make them feel better and more competent. This could result in an increase in risky behavior, such as criminal activity and substance abuse, as a means to cope with their challenges and achieve their goals.
Dyslexia, as well as other neurodevelopmental disorders, can have tremendous emotional and behavioral consequences for children and adolescents. However, these consequences are not inevitable. With appropriate intervention, children with dyslexia can learn how to remediate their reading skills and reach their potential. This is why it is critical to identify dyslexia early on. If you suspect that your child may struggle with dyslexia, you can start by discussing your concerns with your child’s teacher or school psychologist. If you don’t find your child’s school to be responsive to your concerns, you might consider pursuing a private psychoeducational evaluation to better understand his or her educational challenges and needs.
Erik Newman, Ph.D., LP
Dr. Erik Newman is a clinical child psychologist with expertise in psychological and neuropsychological assessment. He obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Texas at Austin. He then obtained a Master of Arts degree in General/Theoretical Psychology and a Doctor of Philosophy degree, both from Fairleigh Dickinson University. He completed his internship in child and adolescent assessment and intervention at the UCSD/VA Psychology Internship Program and went on to complete his postdoctoral training in Biological Psychiatry and Neuroscience through the UC San Diego Department of Psychiatry. Over the last 14 years, he has worked in outpatient, inpatient, and school settings developing expertise in conducting psychological and neuropsychological evaluations for children, adolescents, and adults with ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, learning disabilities, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, psychosis, and attachment disorders. He also spent six of those years conducting research on brain-behavior relationships, including neuroanatomical correlates of anxiety and inhibitory functioning. He has published numerous scientific articles and book chapters on ADHD, mood disorders, neuropsychological assessment, and clinical interventions.