Ask An Expert / Learning and Development Disorders

My 7-year-old son with dyslexia is easily frustrated or angered by things outside of school. Is that common?

Yes, kids struggling in school often act out at home

Matthew M. Cruger, PhD
Matthew Cruger, PhD

Senior Director, Learning and Development Center

Child Mind Institute

My 7-year-old has recently been diagnosed with dyslexia and I am wondering if it is common for these children to be easily and frequently frustrated or angered by things outside of school.

It’s not surprising that your son is prone to frustration and anger. Kids who have learning disorders do have higher rates of emotional frustration. We see this in research studies in two ways: When we look at a sample of kids who are referred for services related to emotional functioning, we find that they have higher rates of learning issues. And the kids referred for learning needs also have higher rates of emotional distress and difficulty.

His age is important here, too. A 6-or-7-year-old is confronting, for the first time, real demands related to learning to read, with lots and lots of time spent teaching and practicing reading skills. He’s surrounded by other kids who are responding quickly and effectively to that instruction. If he isn’t progressing as quickly as the other kids, he notices it and he gets frustrated and out of sorts.

Parents and teachers often think that kids in the first or second grade don’t notice when they’re getting extra help with reading, and don’t see themselves as poor readers. But when I see them they tell me they’re in the “dumbest reading group.” They’re tuned in to everything that’s happening in the classroom, judging who is really a competent reader and who is not.

Reading is the central focus of school in those years, so if kids are off in those skill sets, they’re bound to spend the day feeling badly and building up frustration. When they come home, it’s pretty understandable that they might be easily set off. From a neurological perspective, dyslexia makes learning more taxing mentally and emotionally. And kids this age don’t have the emotional competence to handle the extra stress without acting out.

Your son’s level of frustration is likely to be affected by how his teacher handles potentially frustrating moments. Let’s say he picks out a book he wants to read on Level H, and his reading skills are Level D. A teacher who’s wise will jump in immediately and steer him to picking a book, for now, that’s more in line with his skills. There’s a potential disconnect between a child’s level of interest — what he wants to be able do and what he is able to comprehend — and his level of actual decoding skills.

And as a mom, it’s good to think about the messages you might be sending that could contribute to your son’s frustration. When kids are practicing reading skills at home, and they struggle over a word, parents often try to help by saying, “Sound it out. Take your time.” It’s okay to do that once every five times he gets stuck on a word, but the other four times, just tell him what the word is so he can go on, and the experience of reading can be enjoyable rather than taxing.

If you think about it, there’s writing around us practically everywhere, so a child who’s feeling like a failure in reading may feel surrounded by evidence of his failings. Getting him help with reading and encouraging him to explore activities that don’t involve reading are two ways to help alleviate his stress.

Read More: Supporting the Emotional Needs of Kids With Learning Disabilities