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  • Julie Knight

Anxiety and Dyslexia


I am lucky that I have never been impacted by anxiety, but I have two dyslexic children who are. It took me a while to recognise it for what it is, as young children aren’t the best at communicating what is going on inside their heads (or bodies for that matter). For one child, anxiety presents as extreme anger, and for the other it is all about avoidance. For many people, it can come across as laziness or apathy.

In simple terms, anxiety is a state of worry about what might be—as compared to stress, which is a reaction to what is. Both stress and anxiety trigger the same chemical reactions in the brain, which does a really good job of remembering negative experiences. So if your child worries all the time about something bad happening to them, that is going to put them in a state of constant stress.

Now imagine what it is like to be in an environment where you struggle to understand what is going on, and the fear (and reality) of failure is constant. For the Dyslexic learner, this is the reality of a learning environment where reading, writing, math and even social interactions are fraught with confusion and failure. It makes sense then, that many people with dyslexia become withdrawn, seek the company of younger people, or become socially isolated.

As adults, we have learned coping mechanisms to get us through tough situations. We know how to take good deep breaths, slow down and think things through, we can recognise when our thoughts start to descend into a negative spiral, and we can take baby steps to expose ourselves to the things that make us anxious. A younger child doesn’t have these coping mechanisms; they are forced to confront many of their fears head on every day (you MUST attend school), and most often they do not yet have the ability to advocate for themselves. If we want to reduce the anxiety in their lives (and yes, the anger, apathy or avoidance that impacts on your family), we must help them learn some of these skills. So what are some of the steps that we as parents or teachers can take to help out?

  • Understanding their dyslexia. Kids need to understand why they are not ‘getting things’ the same way as their classmates. They’re pretty smart - they can see if they are in the bottom reading or math group. They’re smart enough to try and compensate by pretending to read bigger and harder books (and other strategies too) to fit in with their classmates. No kid wants to feel dumb, and this is often how they are feeling. By showing them how dyslexia has an impact on their performance in school or social situations; how there is a pathway forward to become the best they can be; and how many other notable dyslexic people have found a way to capitalise on their strengths; they will feel a greater sense of control and therefore be less anxious about the road ahead.

  • Understanding their learning style. When it comes to learning, your dyslexic child will perform better if they understand their strengths, weaknesses, and how they can access information the best. If they know they learn better in a certain way (often visually - where we use YouTube alot), help them strengthen that skill. If you have an auditory learner, help them to memorise through song or rhythm, and for the kinesthetic learner help them to remember using movement. Help them to access information independently at home too. For some hot tips on this, check out my upcoming blog post on assistive technology.

  • Listen (no really listen properly with an open and quiet mind), empathise and problem solve. It’s important to work out what it is that is causing the anxiety for your child, bit by bit over time. It is important to be open minded, and really listen to your child. Keep probing (but not suggesting answers or issues), and encourage your child to come up with some of their own solutions. With a little practice, they’ll surprise you with some pretty innovative ideas! Looking for ideas on how to get them doing this? Although your dyslexic and anxious child may not have challenging behaviours, using the collaborative problem solving approach Dr Greene uses in his book “The Explosive Child” could work wonders. His “Plan B” is now my go to approach for many things. Here’s a link to his website: http://www.livesinthebalance.org/parents-families

  • Look ahead, plan, role play. Talk with your child about situations that are causing the most stress for them and role play and discuss ways to face them. Practice makes perfect, and when the child feels there will be no surprises, anxiety can be reduced.

  • Never dismiss their concerns. It’s really important once you have found out what their concerns are, not to dismiss them - “oh, you’ll be fine.” Remember that perception is everything. It doesn’t matter if a teacher, friend, or parent believes that you can do something; it’s that you think you can do it that matters.

  • Advocate and teach self-advocacy. You have an important role in advocating for your child. You’ll need to talk to their teacher (and/or SENCO) and explain how your child’s dyslexia affects them, and common accommodations that are helpful (such as not requiring a child to read out loud or pairing your dyslexic child with a child who reads well when there are activities requiring reading or writing beyond their ability). It’s also important to teach children effective strategies, techniques, and approaches that will maximise success and minimise frustration and failure. This often involves teaching them how to self-advocate – a skill they will need for the rest of their lives. Advocacy involves understanding their diagnosis, what areas of their learning are the most impacted and which accommodations benefit them the most.

  • Support their weaknesses with tutoring to enable competence. Children and adults need abundant opportunities to display mastery and experience success. Providing these opportunities gives individuals with dyslexia a chance to learn how to replace the language of self-doubt with the language of success. Competence instills confidence and competence leads to success. When children, adolescents, and adults are able to develop a sense of mastery over their environments (school, their passions, and social interactions), they develop a feeling of being in control of their own destiny. Control through competence is the best way to eradicate stress and anxiety. Love Your Brain specialises in tutoring for reading, math and writing, with a focus on growing skills, confidence and self-esteem.

  • Teach them skills to manage the stress and reduce the threat. This involves actively teaching your child how to recognise and manage stress, the skills of honest self-appraisal, and the ability to learn from and repair errors. It means giving students the chance to practice newly learned skills in a safe place. It also involves teaching students with dyslexia how to recognise and deactivate “stress triggers”. For some great practical tips, check out this website: https://www.anxietybc.com/parenting/my-anxiety-plan-social-anxiety

  • Practice mindfulness and meditation. Yoga is a great stress reliever and is not just for adults. Kids who practice yoga have a greater ability to relax, unwind and calm themselves, as well as all the benefits of improved concentration, motor skills, strength and confidence. To find out more, check out harmonyyoga.co.nz who run kids classes at the Titirangi Community Centre. They are on Tuesdays between 4.30 and 5.15pm, and cost $13 a session. For a less formal approach, check out an app called Smiling Mind at the App Store or Google Play Store. It’s an enjoyable approach to meditation and mindfulness, targeted at specific age groups.

  • Exercise: Regular and vigorous physical activity is known to enhance brainpower and reduce stress. Therefore, it is important to build in opportunities for exercise. Also encourage your child to drink plenty of water and eat a healthy diet.

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