Teenage stress and dyslexia – by Nicola Morgan

Teenagers have a few different stresses from adults. One that we forget is this: every schoolday, teenagers are under pressure to succeed at things they are not good at. Adults usually don’t because we’ve chosen jobs where we focus on our strengths. We usually avoid doing things we’re bad at.

But picture a typical day for a teenager: in a maths lesson, struggling to understand a new maths concept. She* feels stressed, upset and demoralised. She heard the teacher praising the ones who understood quickly. Why can’t she do it? Still upset, she rushes to a French lesson where she has to switch her mind to a test. She can’t focus on the first questions as she keeps thinking about the maths lesson; she doesn’t do as well as she could and the teacher is disappointed. Someone makes a narky comment at break time and then it’s PE – something she hates. She goes from there to Geography, which she finds boring. The teacher asks her a question, which she can’t answer because she’d switched off for a minute. As the day goes on she feels more and more battered by constant demands to do better than she can in every subject. She’s good at art, but she doesn’t have art on Mondays.

Imagine how much worse it is for a dyslexic pupil. Even in his* stronger subjects, there is the constant chance of stress as he struggles to process the questions, homework tasks, classroom tasks, spoken instructions. He’s always a step behind, no matter how hard he tries. It’s exhausting. Mentally and physically.

(*I use “she” and “he” randomly. Both girls and boys have dyslexia.)

Worry and stress build up, leading to what scientists call “preoccupation”.  Put simply, this means: when our minds are occupied by one activity or thought process (in this case, worry or stress) we have less “bandwidth” – less brain power – left to focus on the task. That’s why we perform less well when we are preoccupied. Also, self-control suffers. People under stress are more likely to be snappy and say things they regret. And get into trouble for it.

Dyslexic teenagers may also have an extra stress: worry about future jobs. They will have been told that they need qualifications. And they will know that most qualifications will be more difficult for them, that they will have to work harder and perhaps have extra teaching.  Working harder at things they already find difficult and may be doing their best in.

So, what can we do as the parents, relatives or teachers of dyslexic teenagers?

  1. Understand their extra stresses – and remember that they may not express these stresses clearly. (Not because they’re dyslexic, just because they are human and stressed!)
  2. Boost self-esteem by focusing on strengths – whether creativity, sport, empathy or whatever – and reinforce the idea that there are jobs out there for people of all different strengths and weaknesses. Employers don’t just need people who can spell and write – they need people who are personable, diligent, decent.
  3. Help them investigate great role models amongst dyslexic adults – Richard Branson, Sir Jackie Stewart and our own ambassadors such as the fencer, Keith Cook; the artist, Mark Stoddart; the Everton and Scotland footballer, Steven Naismith; and Paul McNeill, Regional Manager at Scottish Football Association.
  4. For older teenagers, guide them towards work experience opportunities where they can feel at ease and excited. Always make sure any adult working with them understands something about dyslexia and the teenager’s strengths.
  5. Teach good stress strategies. (The Teenage Guide to Stress has masses.)
  6. Investigate hobbies. Hobbies have huge benefits: they provide stress relief, boost different parts of our brains and can often lead to other things, such as jobs or new friends. And they are great for self-esteem.
  7. Realise that many teachers don’t have a good understanding of dyslexia. If you feel that your teenager is not getting the best support at school, contact Dyslexia Scotland without delay and they can advise you.
  8. Never let your teenager be afraid to say, with head held high, “I’m dyslexic.”  Help him find a way to explain this simply: “It means some things are harder for me, like remembering instructions or which order things go in. What do you find difficult?” Because everyone has something. 

Struggling is stressful for anyone. Continued stress, without let-ups, is bad for us, emotionally and physically. We can’t get rid of dyslexia but we can help our young people manage stress and use good relaxation strategies, while helping others understand what dyslexia is. Then their skills and strengths can shine.


Copyright © Nicola Morgan 2014

Nicola Morgan is a multi-award-winning writer for and about teenagers. Her classic book on the teenage brain, BLAME MY BRAIN – THE TEENAGE BRAIN REVEALED, is now followed by THE TEENAGE GUIDE TO STRESS (both Walker Books) and innovative multimedia teaching resources on the brain and mental health, BRAIN STICKS™. She writes the free Brain Sane newsletter and is an Ambassador for Dyslexia Scotland. See: www.nicolamorgan.com