The influence of a family on the pattern of a child’s behaviour is important and considerable. Most parents are indeed aware of the fact that they do have influence on their child but how exactly their influence is exerted on the child may not be clear to them. While the family influences on a child are important, they are not fixed over a long period of time. These influences are transactional in nature, and will vary according to the prevailing needs and situations faced by a dyslexic child at different stages of his life.
With this in mind, it is important for professionals and parents too, to understand two factors in helping to break the chain of any negative and harmful family influence on a dyslexic child. First, how the intrusion of dyslexia can permanently change the family dynamic and second, how the relationships within a family are altered when a child is first diagnosed as dyslexic.
The dyslexic child: caught in the middle
Will family relationships change when a child is diagnosed as dyslexic?
Yes. Things are never the same again. The diagnosis of dyslexia leads to the formation of new structure and relationships within the family, and other family relationships also go through changes to accommodate this. Since the different units within the family are interdependent, the dyslexic child’s behaviour is best understood by studying every aspect of the changes that involve and affect the entire family relationship.
Generally speaking, problems in the family usually arise when the balance of give and take between parents and children or between fathers and mothers is disturbed. Of equal importance is when the balance of what is fair and just is distorted. The risk of emotional harm and development of problem behaviour in a dyslexic child are then multiplied with each hot spot of hostility in the family.
In most extreme cases, for example, the dyslexic child can take on the role of family scapegoat, accepting in the family politics the scorn of both siblings and parents and , eventually, internalizing all the ‘bad’ things in the family.
Are the family influences on dyslexic children unusual?
Yes. In fact, what is central to understanding the dyslexic child is that the family influences to which he is now subjected to are not only complex but involve large amounts of unexpressed negative material from both siblings and parents.
This results in a significant degree of acting out by all the family members that contaminates the dyslexic’s view of himself in quite specific ways.
Most family effects on the dyslexic child have at least been overt – extending the courtesy of open and measureable abuse.
The key to understanding the dyslexic’s family influence lies in the fact that much of the abuse can be denied, covert and worst of all, well meaning.
In trying to understand these influences, it is important to go back to the beginning, to the time when the family gradually realises that their child is dyslexic. That child is crying for help and waiting to be diagnosed.
When dyslexia comes greeting.
The passage below is an insightful overview of what it is like for most parents to discover their child is dyslexic.
A few months after beginning school, the once happy and contented child may not be quite so settled. Often, parents develop vague feelings of unease about their child’s development, but they will probably not be able to put their finger on what is wrong. They will be baffled by their child, who seems so able and bright in some contexts but so poorly skilled in others. He may have trouble remembering how to write his name, or he may be the only one who has not been given a reading book because he hasn’t learned how to recognise the key word flash cards. Behaviour problems may appear as he rebels over having to conform to the class rules. He may start wetting the bed, having been dry for two years or more, or he may become reluctant about attending school. As he falls farther and farther behind his peer group in literacy skills, his self-esteem may suffer and poor behaviour, mood swings, introversion or depression may become manifest. Apparent failure at school does not pass unnoticed by the parents, who start to become anxious. In their turn, they too are confused. Often there was little concrete evidence before their child started at primary school that anything was amiss. Some clumsiness, a quaint way with words or failure to remember instructions could easily be ascribed to general immaturity. The parents’ increasing worries reflect on the child. If there are other siblings without learning difficulties, the parents may be tactful enough not to make direct comparison, but the child will usually be aware of the discrepancies. A deep sense of unease begins to grow and the child becomes conscious that he is disappointing his family. Stress for the dyslexic is not confined to school but permeates home life as well. As it grows it can lead to such manifestations of emotional disturbance as temper tantrums, aggression and bed-wetting. An element of guilt may be set up in either child or parents, whose management of the child becomes increasingly uncertain. Pressure creates further stress, but acceptance of failure can appear to be demoralising patronage, and a middle way is hard to find.
Does dyslexia expect a home to be organised?
Yes – and parents have to put a lot of effort into coping with a dyslexic child at home. There is always a degree, however, to which this is resented – especially as the problems do not diminish as a child becomes older. Parents must, for example, learn to deal with the associated problems of dyslexia, such as timekeeping, organisation and encouragement of coping mechanisms. They must also help their dyslexic child take control of himself and his routines, as well as involving themselves in the educational management of their dyslexic child. When these objectives are met, parents can see they are making a difference in the life of their child. Often, successes come in small steps.
This may, indeed, be great for those who relish such challenges, but parents generally do not enjoy doing this at all, and all the extra family help for a dyslexic can seem an unending chore. It is not surprising to find out that many parents are not alone in resenting, rather than revelling in such extra routines.
Dyslexic children need help with the peripheral handicaps of dyslexia, including losing books and sports clothes, forgetting messages and appointments, confusing the days of the week, the incomplete following of instructions, the inability to read what the homework requires – let alone do it – and general wild disorganisation.
Indeed, some may argue that it is easier to look after a 70 year old individual with Alzheimer’s disease than a highly intelligent ten-year old child with moderate dyslexia. If the dyslexic child also has dyspraxia or ADHD, the organisation problems can increase exponentially.
Some survival strategies for parents of a dyslexic child
In order to survive, the parents must learn strategies, such as providing checklists tabulated with two boxes to check if something has been found and a second to indicate it has been named, daily lists of detailing lunch money, reading book, pencil case, art materials or musical instrument. Schedules must be worked out and glued in appropriate places, such as dyslexic child’s diary or locker. Bulletin boards and organisers must be bought and problems endlessly anticipated. There must also be back-up strategies for every eventuality, such as having the telephone number of a school friend who can be relied upon to help him with homework details, and having copies to hand of all school timetables detailing clothing and equipment needs.
These extra planning demands are hard for non- dyslexic parents – but for parents who are dyslexic themselves, particularly a mother, this can be a nightmare. Her own anxiety will rebound back onto her child who will then feel unhelped and panicked. He will then make even more demands on her already stretched organisational resources leading to even greater anxiety for both of them. They exist in endless, amplifying corridor of stress-reflecting mirrors.
In the most extreme cases, the unremitting demands of looking after their own dyslexic children may send a dyslexic parent into the breakdown that has been waiting in the wings all their lives. The cycle of change is thereby dramatically perpetuated.
Which one is it now? A rigid or relaxed family structure helps the dyslexic child?
A rigid family structure certainly helps every time.
In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say an army- like routine must be put in place. The family must adopt a new type of controlled and organised home environment run on very strict lines. This should not be seen as a reflection of a maladaptive or pathological family functioning but the opposite: effective, adaptive family response to the demands of dyslexia. It is an accepted truth that in working with dyslexics that the adults caring for them must be 150% organised because dyslexic children are only 50% organised themselves.
Research also shows that parents of dyslexic adolescents discovered that their children coped better with control, discipline, fixed-role relationships and clear rules. This type of organisation meant there was a near absence of emotional and behavioural disorders among their children. The more rigid the organisation of family life (as opposed to a more liberal regime), the more beneficial it is to dyslexic children. Strong systems also make dyslexic children feel safe.
To say the least, this process of home adaptation can be stressful for those parents who, prior to having a dyslexic child, might have had a more relaxed and laid back family lifestyle. The changes may be a little drastic to them. While some struggle on with an increasingly desperate and tense attempt to be laid-back, parents usually face up to the inevitable choice of living with dyslexia: organise or disintegrate. Not much of a choice, is there?
Do the family and school unite to help the dyslexic child?
In an ideal world, every parent dreams of the union between family and school in helping their dyslexic child. The reality is that almost primitive warfare can break out, with the parents and teachers acting more like children than the dyslexic child.
A dyslexic child’s school problems rebound on home life and vice versa in an increasingly uncontrolled ping-pong of influence and blame. Teachers generally for example, can attribute many children’s difficulties to adverse home circumstances and assume that the parents do not care about their child’s education, when the parents can be bewildered about the child’s problem as is the teacher. In a study, parents generally felt they had been stereotyped and blamed in some way by the inaccurate stereotypes of each other based on partial information.
Inconsistent teacher responses and failure to respond to them can also lead to frustrated anxiety for parents of a dyslexic child who resent the fact that teachers seem not to understand the reality of what home life is like for them. This leads to unproductive communications flying back and forth between home and school, with the dyslexic child stuck in the middle.
This is sad because there is much evidence to show that the partnership between home and school can make a positive and significant difference to dyslexic children, and teachers can provide the very best support for a dyslexic child.
Is it a good idea to teach a dyslexic child to read at home?
No. In fact, this seems to be a bad idea after all. Almost any other type of help would be better. Living with a dyslexic child can be extremely stressful. Trying to help a dyslexic child at home with any sort of teaching is unimaginably so. It is like the worst type of driving lesson with a close relative or even spouse. It also does not help one a little bit if parents are using inappropriate teaching methods and get agitated easily.
This situation has great potential for volcanic rows, hurtful and spectacular disagreement with both parties ending up, literally, in tears. Neither does it help if a teacher overwhelms a child with dyslexia homework and is insensitive to the fact that parents themselves may be insecure readers.
Parents who have tried to teach their dyslexic child at home can end up at a loss by the onslaught of short-term memory problems, rage, frustration or their child’s skilful use of sabotage, task avoidance strategies and sly charm.
On balance it is better to leave well alone: learning support might be given by parent, but it gives rise to much tension and disagreement between parent and child. An older sibling, relation, neighbour or babysitter could be a viable option. Parents must be reassured that it is not unusual for support to be sometimes better when given by someone other than themselves.
Acceptance, love, a sense of humour and reading lots of books to a dyslexic child are far more useful offerings from a parent.
Article adapted from ‘In the home of the dyslexic child’ Scott, R. (2004). Dyslexia and Counselling. Chp 5, pp 103 –126. WhurrPublishers