How can a Dyslexic Work Through the Wounds of his Childhood?

Field report by Lars Michael Lehmann, Dyslexia expert and specialist journalist

Through my own Dyslexia and many years of working with affected adults, I have gained a lot of experience. My insight is that many emotional problems from a burdened childhood can dig themselves into our souls as „wounds“. This can be due to a problematic family setting or an unfavorable learning environment at school. If I understand it correctly today, Dyslexia does not automatically have to become a mental problem, but the social environment can promote it. Therefore, the WHO’s definition of Dyslexia as a mental disorder means only a very narrow clinical picture, which, however, cannot be applied to the majority of dyslexics. On the one hand, not all affected persons grow up in a stressed social environment. On the other hand, not all learning problems occur more frequently in families, which is the rule with Dyslexia. Instead, there are different reading and spelling problems, which should be differentiated as LRS[1] (acquired) and Dyslexia (genetic inheritance). This more useful differentiation has been discussed in the professional community since the beginning of research on Dyslexia.

During my professional practice I have seen very different biographies of dyslexics.

Devaluation in the Family Environment

I would like to share something from my personal history. In my family Dyslexia occurs more frequently. My father is also affected by severe Dyslexia. In his childhood nobody cared about it, because he was a post-war child and the family had to survive first. He always had very great difficulties in reading and writing, which continue to this day. In night school he was able to get a 10th grade diploma. He is inquisitive and very creative. But in my childhood, he could not be a real support to me because of his problems. He could not help me in school matters. My mother, on the other hand, was an ace in German and foreign languages. She tried hard to support me in school, but she could not understand my problems and devalued me as a person without intending to do so. My mother was ashamed of me because in GDR times I had to go to a special school for the learning disabled. Again and again, I was shown very clearly that I would get nowhere in life.

Devaluation in the School Environment

It was no better at school, and, to make matters worse, I grew up in a Catholic home. In GDR times, that was not welcome in my homeland, rural Upper Lusatia (Oberlausitz). Our Special Needs School was quite loyal to the regime. I received no real help and support there. Already in the first classes it became clear that I had great difficulties in reading and writing. It was always argued that this was just a learning disability. In my private environment, acquaintances and friends of parents always noticed that I did not belong at this school. But my parents could not change that, and they had to comply. I also experienced devaluation at school. We were told that we would have no career opportunities after 8th grade. We would have to resign ourselves to becoming unskilled workers.

These are only brief excerpts from my biography. They make clear that I experienced all kinds of devaluation in my life. Certainly not all dyslexics had such a biography. But many of them will find themselves here. However, I see differences between the old and the new federal states. For me it is important that I grew up in a regime during GDR times. Many of my peers from the GDR’s turnaround generation had a similar experience. As far as I know, there are also dyslexics in the old federal states with psychological wounds from their childhood. These can be of very different nature. Those affected in the old federal states lived in a freer and more self-determined world (especially since ’68), which is why political-social life played a lesser role in their biography than it did for those who grew up in the GDR.

How can an Affected Person Cope with his Psychological Wounds?

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for this. From my own experience, I can say what has helped me. The decisive factor for me was to acknowledge these breaks in my biography. This was not easy for me, because I had to work through the wounds of the past with professional help from psychologists and pastoral counselors. In addition, I succeeded in qualifying myself professionally out of my own state of affectedness, so that I could now help other affected people professionally. As a practicing Christian, I was able to learn how to forgive my parents for the wounds they caused. I was able to give these wounds to Jesus Christ, talk about them with my parents and tell them I forgave them. I had a similar experience about the time at school. I talked a lot with trusted people to work through these wounds. In contrast, it took me several years to come to terms with the traumatic experiences of the GDR system, in which I had to work for two years as a „handicapped person“ in a workshop for the disabled for political reasons. I have been able to come to terms with these mentally very stressful experiences to this day. An important support in this process were friends and other trusted people with whom I could talk about everything. These conversations (+ written expressions) triggered a very healing process in me. It was a very important experience for my professional life. Today, I can understand very well how these psychological wounds feel and how one can cope with them step by step.

I would like us dyslexics to talk more about our stories in public. That helps to cope! The wounds of our children’s souls continue to have an effect into adulthood, there is no closure. That’s why it’s so important that children with Dyslexia remain psychologically stable throughout their school years. This is an important reason why I criticize the LRS classes in Saxony – because this special school experience in the form of an LRS class can act as a discrimination experience and a psychological wound for those affected. I have already seen some adults with tears in their eyes who have experienced this wound of exclusion. These wounds also need processing and healing.

These steps are important for some dyslexics to continue to manage their weakness into adulthood. Unfortunately, professionals have not addressed this area much. In the case of anxiety and depression, it makes sense to seek psychological help. I have had good experience with this. Unfortunately, only a few psychologists and therapists are familiar with the subject of Dyslexia. Today, most professionals do not dispute the fact that people with Dyslexia have developed psychological problems due to unrecognized Dyslexia, but the definition of Dyslexia as a mental disorder or clinical diagnosis on the part of the WHO is extremely controversial. Certainly, dyslexic people can experience psychological stress due to the psychological wounds in childhood (through family and school), which then expresses itself as fear of failure, inferiority complexes or behavioral problems. From my point of view, this is often a reaction to psychological wounds, and only in rare cases do serious psychological illnesses develop from this. My conclusion is: Many more adults could overcome their Dyslexia if they are willing to work through their psychological wounds.

 

[1] German for reading and writing disability (Lese-Rechtschreib-Schwäche)

Why do adult dyslexics often have psychological difficulties?

In general, one has the impression today that mental illnesses are increasing in our society. About 40 percent of the population suffer from mental illnesses. Dyslexic adults are also more likely to have mental problems in adulthood. The causes are not only to be found in dyslexia itself. Many of these problems are related to rejection experiences and school fears, which can damage the personality of those affected. Also separation experiences by an reading and spelling weakness-class (Germany) can favour mental problems.

Possible causes of psychological damage in the childhood

The definition of read spelling disorder as a medical disorder image only outlines the problems. It is much more important to ask where possible mental illnesses come from. Were they caused during childhood in a difficult parental environment (divorce of parents, neglect, psychological violence, lack of parental support) or in school (class size, change of teacher, loss of lessons, methodology)? The social causes are indeed perceived and mentioned in the professional world. However, they are rarely taken into account in the diagnosis and support, because usually only the symptoms are recognised and treated. If the social problems in childhood were to be recognised and changed, many of those affected could be saved from possible psychological damage into adulthood.

Family and school environment can favour mental problems

We know several biographies of adults who had a problematic parental home during their childhood. This also applied to socially disadvantaged people, but most of them are families from the classic middle classes. We have seen people whose parents divorced during childhood. Some children lacked the affection of their parents because they were very busy at work. The upbringing of the children then ran parallel. Some parents offer their children only few incentives to learn, and high media consumption plays an important role in this. There were only a few isolated cases of neglect or physical or psychological violence by the parents. Some were told by their parents that they were too stupid to learn to read and write. This verbal personal devaluation can be a form of mental violence that can lead to psychological injuries and mental harm. Mobbing experiences at school exacerbate these problems. Classmates can sometimes be cruel when they verbally devalue their classmates because of their learning problems. Teachers can also miss their position as authorities by verbally or gestically devaluing the pupils concerned, by not perceiving the learning problems or by showing little empathy. These causes described here can favour mental problems into adulthood.

Probably 60-70 percent of adult dyslexics have suffered psychological damage. A reading and spelling weakness is not automatically a mental illness, but the personal environment contributed to a large part of these mental illnesses.

Mental problems are independent of reading and spelling difficulties

Most of the time, they cover up a reading and spelling problem. Psychologists often describe that affected adults have depressive illnesses because they could not cope with their reading and spelling weakness in childhood. We experience similar processes with adults who attended an LRS class and suffered from separation into a special school. Exclusion experiences in education or in the family context can devalue children’s souls. This is related to the psychological stability that is still developing in children at this stage. There are many different interactions, whether or not those affected experience mental problems.

Knowledge of the social environment can help dyslexia more effectively

Even if those affected have a family tendency to have problems in learning the written language, this does not mean that these difficulties cannot be overcome in early childhood. The social and family context of the affected person plays a decisive role in determining whether these problems must become a psychological problem or whether the affected person achieves mental stability through his or her developmental tasks. Therefore the medical diagnosis reading spelling disturbance brings little use to the concerning. Knowledge of the social environment is much more important. If this environment can be changed in childhood so that these children, despite their learning problems, are not devalued in their personal development but strengthened in their existing resources, there is a chance that they, like all other children, develop psychologically stable and do not have to suffer any harm. This context should be put more into the perspective of the professional world.

A dyslexia test must not be used as a certificate of convenience

Some people think they have a reading and spelling weakness confirmed so that they can sit back and relax. Some personal problems are then projected onto the dyslexia, which is not connected to it at all. It’s about psychological problems that can show up in social behaviour. A person with dyslexia can promote psychological problems in connection with a problematic childhood and learning difficulties that have not been overcome. Nevertheless, dyslexia is not a weakness with disease value, such an approach makes it too easy. Therefore, dyslexia testing should not be used as a certificate of comfort. It should be an impulse to tackle and overcome the problems.

It is not uncommon to see adult sufferers having difficulty reading and writing since childhood. They perhaps visited therapy offers over the social welfare office (§35a SGB VIII) or as usual in Saxonia,Germany, a special class, which is more common to most than LRS classes. In addition to these offers of help, only a few of those affected have a willingness to learn on their own, to cope with their problems. Therefore, the difficulties persist in in adulthood spite of the aid measures in childhood and adolescence. Without an independent will to learn, which should already be laid as a foundation stone at home, there is a high probability that the unresolved learning problems will be covered by psychological and personal difficulties that are not directly related to dyslexia. One should not project personal problems into a reading and spelling weakness, but rather have them treated by a psychologist.

A much more important approach must be to change the behaviour of those affected. If the mental balance stabilizes, there is the chance to compensate this weakness as far as possible in order to master life better. Those affected who get along well in life have often reflected on their difficulties and are able to understand their childhood or school biographical development. Only if the problems are understood, the chance exists to process them. Behavioural therapy can certainly be a help here, but unfortunately many behavioural therapists are not sufficiently familiar with this problem. In the case of depressive moods, which often occur in adults, we have already observed good progress in therapy. Adults with more severe psychological problems often find it more difficult or they do not want to admit that they have a mental problem in addition to their dyslexia. In adults, the number of people affected with mental problems does not seem to be small. The number is probably higher than among children and adolescents. According to our estimates, around 60-70 percent of those affected suffered psychological damage in childhood as a result of a problematic social structure and learning environment. Only this can explain the mental disorders that can occur in dyslexics.  Because dyslexia in itself is not a mental disorder. It is only a partial performance weakness in reading and writing.

In our opinion, the psychological problems are often due to an unprocessed childhood – the dyslexia should then serve as a projection surface. But dyslexia is not to blame for the problems in childhood. It needs active cooperation and the will to develop further with the upcoming tasks. Only then can it and life as a whole be mastered. A dyslexia test should not be a certificate for an illness. It is only an indication that you have to do something on your own initiative. At this point one’s own personal responsibility for life comes into play. Only a return to personal resources and targeted self-help will make it possible to overcome these difficulties. Only when the affected person realises that he is not allowed to lean back with a dyslexia test will he be able to overcome the difficulties in the long term.

Conclusion:

A diagnosis of dyslexia must always strengthen the will to overcome weakness. It must not be a comfort certificate. Therefore, the value of a medical diagnosis of dyslexia is questionable. This diagnosis is intended to cement the belief that the problems are pathological and unmanageable. In our experience, many difficulties can be overcome in the long term, even in adulthood. However, there is no blanket solution here because the group of people affected is very heterogeneous.

Hier lesen Sie die deutsche Fassung.