Dyslexia and Anxiety: What You Need to Know

Kids know how important reading is. They hear it from their parents and teachers starting at a very young age. So when kids with dyslexia struggle with that vital skill, it can create feelings of anxiety.

In most cases, those feelings are passing and limited to situations that involve reading. That might be anything from reading a menu to taking notes for a book report. But sometimes, kids with dyslexia and other learning issues develop a bigger problem with anxiety.

How Dyslexia Can Cause Stress and Anxious Feelings

It’s not surprising that kids with dyslexia feel anxious at times. They can face many stressful situations throughout a day. Many of those situations involve “what ifs”—a big part of anxiety. Here are two examples:

  • A child with dyslexia may have to go to the “easy shelf” when the class is picking out reading books. What if the other kids see him and think he’s stupid or his choices are babyish?
  • The class is taking turns reading passages from a book. What if the teacher calls on him and he stumbles over the words?

Kids with dyslexia often have fears about what might happen if they need to do something that involves reading. They may be afraid of failing, or of being judged or embarrassed. There may even be moments when they fear they’ll never learn or succeed at anything because of their reading challenges.

These negative emotions are understandable. But they typically don’t spread beyond the situation at hand. With understanding and the right support, kids can move past them fairly quickly.

But when kids with dyslexia have stressful experiences often, the emotions can pile up. And so can the anxiety.

When Dyslexia Causes Ongoing Stress and Anxiety

Kids with dyslexia are as smart as their peers. But they face more daily stress because of their challenges.

They often have to cope with struggles, setbacks and negative feedback at school. Because of this, some struggle socially and feel like they don’t “fit in.” Their trouble with reading can create “I can’t” feelings that impact learning in other areas. This negative view can also impact everyday life.

Feeling a lack of control is a common source of anxiety. Kids with dyslexia can feel like nothing they do will make a difference. That’s often because they don’t know what’s “wrong” with them or why they just can’t read like other kids.

After a while, the ongoing stress doesn’t just affect kids in the present. Instead of only feeling anxious about something that’s happening now, kids may start worrying in advance. The “what ifs” may start being about things that will or might happen farther in the future.

When the anxiety rises to that level, it can move beyond being just a temporary issue. It can become a chronic problem.

Chronic anxiety doesn’t just feel bad. In some cases, it can lead to disciplinary issues. Some kids may act out, clown around or skip class. They may do that to avoid the shame they often feel during activities that involve reading.

For some kids, the anxiety about reading doesn’t always stay limited to just reading. Kids may decide that if they “stink” at reading, they’ll “stink” at everything else.

To avoid the risk of failure, they may avoid new challenges altogether. They may give up on other classes and activities when they become difficult, or not even bother trying in the first place.

Chronic Anxiety and Dyslexia

Having dyslexia doesn’t “pre-wire” kids to be anxious. But in many cases, the more stress kids face, the more sensitive to stress they become. This, and genetics, can contribute to a chronic anxiety disorder.

With an anxiety disorder, worry and fears extend to all aspects of life. It can cause people to dread everyday events and obsess over how things might go wrong. It impacts how they function and gets in the way of enjoying life.

While dyslexia doesn’t lead to anxiety disorder, the two conditions often co-occur. If your child has both, it can help to know you’re not alone. According to one study, nearly 29 percent of kids with a specific learning disability also have an anxiety disorder.

If you’re concerned your child is struggling with chronic anxiety, it’s important to share what you’re seeing with your child’s doctor and understand the types of emotional help available.

How You Can Help

There’s no way to completely spare your child the anxiety that comes from living with dyslexia. But there are many things you can do to help lessen his stress and ease his worries.

If you suspect a reading issue, act. If you’re not sure if your child has dyslexia but are concerned about his ability to read, there are next steps you can take. Talk to your child’s doctor or teacher about what you’re seeing. And consider getting an evaluation. The sooner you can identify the cause of your child’s trouble with reading and get him the help he needs, the less anxious he’ll feel.

Know the signs of anxiety. Kids can show different symptoms at different ages. Learn what to look for in your child.

Help your child understand what dyslexia is and isn’t. Dyslexia is a brain-based issue that has nothing to do with laziness or intelligence. Explain to your child that there are strategies he can learn to help him be successful.

Encourage him to listen to other kids with similar struggles who’ve found ways to succeed. Share dyslexia success stories with him. It can help him know that he’s not alone and that there are things he can do to work through difficulties. That may give him a greater sense of control over his academic future.

Find the level at which he can succeed, and let him stay there for a while. Encourage your child to read at a level that’s comfortable for him. Don’t rush to move him up to more challenging materials. Give him time to build his confidence in a zone where he feels capable.

Help him anticipate and defuse stressful situations. Is tomorrow the day he needs to read his book report to the class? Brainstorm strategies that will lessen his stress. He could practice reading his book report to you and print out a copy in a large, easy-to-read type. Also tell him you will talk to the teacher about things that can help in school. Perhaps he can record the report and play it in class.

Provide alternatives for learning. Your child needs to practice reading and hone his skills. But if that’s not the point of an assignment (for example, learning material in a biology textbook), why make the task even more daunting? If he has an IEP, make sure it provides alternatives. This can include listening to text on audio or watching video presentations. Read about classroom accommodations that can help.

Help him find a way to shine. You know your child is more than just his dyslexia, but he may not always feel that way. Try to identify a special strength in your child. Do your best to cultivate that skill so that he can feel what it’s like to excel in something and be admired for it.

Seek out professional help. If your child’s anxiety is preventing him from learning or functioning, speak to a professional about the possibility of an anxiety disorder. If he does have an anxiety disorder, talk to his doctor about treatment options. These could include cognitive behavior therapy and medication.

The more support your child has, the less anxious he’s likely to be.

Key Takeaways

  • Making sure your child has the tools he needs for reading and learning is a great way to head off anxiety.
  • Help your child understand what dyslexia is—and isn’t. This can reduce anxiety by giving him a greater sense of control.
  • If you’re concerned your child may have chronic anxiety, talk to his doctor about what you’re seeing and discuss next steps.

Article by Peg Rosen, Understood.org