The world is usually so engrossed with the dyslexic individual that they forget the people that are affected by it, the ones who have to change themselves to adapt to the dyslexic individual in their lives, they are behind the dyslexic’s success or failures. It is vital to acknowledge their efforts; hence, it is safe to say that dyslexia isn’t just an academic and individual problem; it’s also a family problem. Having a child with a learning problem impacts the entire family. Parent, brothers, sisters, and even grandparents become involved, must adjust, and are changed in the process.
Families don’t just cope with a child who has dyslexia; they are forever molded by it. The dream of a boy or girl who tops the first-grade reading groups and shines in the third-grade spelling bee is shattered and replaced by the recognition that years of special education and reading help lay ahead. The realities of family life come, long hours of extra help at the kitchen table, schlepping a child, often with siblings finding the time and energy above and beyond to encourage activities that require no pencils or books or being overworked by tutoring their dyslexic sibling. Millions of families live this reality daily, but not without it taking a toll on every family member and changing them in some way. It’s tough and comes with scars. Here we will talk about the stages a family goes through to make aware of the challenges and troubles they may go through and how they can cope up with it.
Reading and writing troubles are easy problems for families to attempt to deny or hide. Learning and reading problems aren’t obvious outside the school. But, from inside a family, they are very obvious; just often glossed over or turned into family denial. The impact on and change to the family begins with the process of recognizing and accepting that their child truly has a learning or reading problem. Recognizing and accepting that a child has Dyslexia can take years and frequently pulls at the very core of marital relationships or family unity.
There are usually no distinct signs of Dyslexia during the first 12 to 18 months of life. Often the pregnancy and birth of a child with a future learning problem were marked by some physical difficulties in the pregnancy or problems at birth. For those parents where there were no pregnancies, birth difficulties, all is bliss and understandably they don’t want to see that picture marred by any developmental issues, which is where sometimes the denial stems from.
The toddler with a major future reading problem generally shows subtle but growing symptoms of concern; symptoms the parents want to dismiss and believe will simply go away. Common with dyslexic children as toddlers are delays in beginning to speak single words or beginning to walk (both of which usually begins around the first birthday for most children). Parents when faced with a child of 18 to 24 months who does not yet speak or is clumsy often write off these as simple “she’ll speak when she needs to.” They do not want to believe that their apparently well developing child has any problem. Parents often go to great effort to avoid recognizing there might be a problem.
Children with mild Dyslexia very often show no clear indicators of the problem until the late preschool years or kindergarten when the parents are beginning to teach their child to write his/her name and are pointing out simple reading words in the environment like “Stop” or the name of the child’s favorite movie. Just like the parents whose child did not begin speaking at the usual time, these parents want to believe “He’ll learn to write his name when he’s ready” or “She’ll do fine when she gets to kindergarten. Even into the first or second grade, parents will deny there is a problem and want to blame it on the school’s failure to recognize their child’s unique learning style, or simply accuse the teacher of poor teaching.
After what are often many months and sometimes years of trying to believe that their child will just grow out of it, Parents usually have some crucial moment when they know there is a delay which they must face. That moment may be observing that their child can’t do something peers can, or finally realizing that their child doesn’t like to write his name or recite nursery rhymes because these tasks are very difficult and frustrating for her. This moment of recognition can often be very powerful and frequently reminder for a parent. Unfortunately, many times one parent has such a moment and the other parent doesn’t. There is often great relationship conflict when one parent says I know there are a problem and the other parent still clings to denial.
Following the first full recognition of a problem comes a flood of emotions. Most often parents feel guilt and anger. They desperately want to identify the cause. They frequently feel guilty that they must have done something to cause the developmental problem or that someone else must be the cause. Often they fluctuate between self-blame and blaming someone else. In this stage, parent’s assignment of blame is often irrational with thoughts like: “If I hadn’t worked during my pregnancy this wouldn’t have happened” or “If the doctor had done a better job’’ then all would be ok. Usually, parents move beyond the stage of guilt and anger after a couple of months. Focusing parents on the needs of their child and the areas where their child functions well generally helps them move into full acceptance of the problem. They are then ready for the diagnostic and remedial help needed.
A small percentage of parents are never able to accept the diagnosis and move beyond emotions to appropriate actions. Many of these parents believe that they are personally stigmatized by having a “less than perfect child.” These parents often behave in active or subtle ways to reject their child. Teachers may see these parents as uninvolved; the parent who reluctantly attends meetings and parent-teacher conferences or who behaves as if their child is just lazy.The non-accepting parent often turns outside the family for support such as through excessive work or activities, which keep them away from home. When one parent is rejecting or feels stigmatized and the other parent has accepted the diagnosis, there can be ongoing relationship stress between the parents that can lead to estrangement or divorce.
Even when both parents fully accept the diagnosis and remedial plans, relationship stresses often continue. A common pattern is for one parent to assume the primary role of managing their dyslexic child. As this parent takes the child to therapies, arranges tutors, and goes to school meetings, the other parent often feels ignored, left out, or burdened with other family duties. Polarized roles in the family can develop easily without any intent by the parents to distance themselves from the other.
Most parents over time balance their home life with providing for their dyslexic child while keeping many of the same interactions and roles they had before the diagnosis. Problems within the family may occur, however, if a parent becomes obsessed or overly involved. This can lead to estrangement from families and take the burden of the child on themselves, which in turn can create distress amongst the family members.
Impact On The Child
Having a learning disability is almost always a threat to a child’s self-esteem. In the family, a dyslexic child often feels that they are not as good as their siblings, especially around academics, and may feel rejected if they have a parent who does not understand and accept their strengths and weaknesses. If a parent adores and becomes overly affectionate on the dyslexic child and always treats them as the “disabled one” in the family, the child is at severe risk of becoming overly dependent on parental attention. This can impair the development of independence in adolescence and adulthood. The overly dependent child in adolescence frequently is angry with parents and may turn to misbehaviors to express this anger. Raising a learning disabled child who feels supported and valued by their family but not smothered by the extra academic help is a delicate balancing act for any family.
A dyslexic child takes more time and parental attention than a child without any developmental problems. That extra attention, however, often means less attention for siblings. The imbalance in attention often creates resentment and anger in siblings who feel that their sibling with Dyslexia gets special treatment.
Additionally, siblings are commonly called into service by parents to cover for parent duties while parents attend to the reading and other needs of their sibling. Siblings are also frequent tutors, babysitters, and transporters of a dyslexic brother or sister. Some siblings accept these roles happily and well, but many resent them and harbor deep anger at their parents and sibling over what seems to them as being burdened with a handicapped sibling.
Issues for the family with a dyslexic child often go beyond the elementary school years. Assisting a dyslexic child in developing appropriate independence in adolescence can be quite a challenge. How much independence to encourage and allow is a difficult issue for all families which can divide parents and other children against parents Siblings may believe that their brother or sister is getting an easier time than they were given, or that parents care about them more.
When Outside Help Is Needed
In many families, there are times when one or several of the family members get stuck in thoughts or feelings which are not benefiting the child needing help. This could be the parent who continues to deny dyslexia, a sibling who feels overshadowed by the attention their dyslexic sibling gets, or the child with the learning problem who feels unworthy and a burden to his family because of their struggles. When these psychological difficulties arise in a family and last for more than a few weeks it is often best to seek outside help. The help can come from an extended family member, another family who has gone through a similar situation, or a mental health professional such as a professional counselor, psychiatrist, or psychologist.
The Big Picture
Whether at the transition to adulthood or the first suspicions of a problem during the preschool years, a family is forever changed by having a dyslexic child. While the trails and troubles are many, they represent a unique opportunity for a family to come together, to help their child, and to adapt in ways which build relationships and strengthen family bonds. Many families have turned their one-time fear and denial into a life of enriched family support. The rally to support their dyslexic child created opportunities for family awareness and growth which would have been unknown to them otherwise. For families, it’s tough and comes with scars, but it can be the experience of a lifetime.