The Emotional Side of Dyslexia: Two Women’s Personal Stories of Overeating to Cope

Carey Cort and Kathy Elkind found each other because they both share two issues in their lives; they both have dyslexia, and they both struggle with overeating to soothe their emotions. Many organizations support people with dyslexia but it is not always easy to find information about its emotional impact and what to do about it. Carey and Kathy would like to share their emotional stories of dyslexia and, at the end, give parents of kids with dyslexia suggestions on how to support their children’s emotional world as they navigate life.

This Q&A is provided for general information purposes only. The International Dyslexia Association does not recommend or endorse any specific programs, products, or professionals for the treatment of dyslexia and/or emotional disorders. The following suggestions do not, and are not intended to, constitute professional medical services, advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

Q: When did you notice the connection between your eating habits and the stress associated with dyslexia? What was the ah-ha moment like?

Carey (C):  I was completely unaware of the association between my shame and frustration of dyslexia and my eating habits.  I always wondered why I craved sweets so much. It began in grammar school and continues to this day. My friends and family would toss it off as saying “oh you have a sweet tooth, you inherited from you father.” But as these eating habits unfolded for me, I realized that it wasn’t the eating habits I inherited from my father—it was the dyslexia. In my late 30s, the connection was made. I don’t remember the exact moment, but I do remember having an “ah-ha” of knowing why I’m having these sugar cravings, that it was associated with the pain and the struggle of dyslexia. This realization brought me two feelings: it brought me the feeling of relief to know why I craved sweets so much, and the more daunting question of what to do about it, because at that point I was addicted to sugar. So I chose to do nothing, because the addiction felt overwhelming.

Kathy (K): In college I was aware that I was overeating when I had writing or tough homework to do. But I just thought I was a weakling and that I could not control myself. Five years ago, at a writing workshop, I was writing about the shame of dyslexia. I was writing about the feelings of isolation and of not being like the other kids. By that time, I had become aware that people use food to comfort and soothe themselves. I did make the connection between the anxiety of dyslexia and my overeating, but it was not a huge “eureka” moment. Over the next two years as I studied to become an Eating Psychology coach, the connection became deeper and deeper. I discovered there were two levels of healing that needed to take place. First, there were the uncomfortable feelings of anxiety before writing. And, second, the deeper childhood feeling of shame associated with feeling different than the other kids. I have mostly healed the deep feelings of shame through sharing my story. I continue to work on facing the uncomfortable feelings before writing without turning to food.

Q: What warning signs would you suggest parents look for to know if their kids are dealing with their stress and frustration of dyslexia by overeating?

C: Warning signs:

  1. Eating excessively after school
  2. Intense craving for sweets
  3. Compulsive eating around situations that challenge a child with dyslexia.

K:  The one thing I would say is that if you find hidden food wrappers or you see signs that there might be some overeating going on, talk about their uncomfortable feelings to see if it is associated with their dyslexia.

Q: If parents see these warning signs, what should they do?

C: My advice is that as soon as you know about these warning signs, start early with the child. The earlier you start to curtail the eating habits, the better. Do that by moving kids to better quality snacks, but don’t say no to all sweets. Know that this is an anxiety that your child is feeling and that they’re using these sweets to help soothe their emotions and to comfort themselves. So if you start with your child early, you can move them towards better snacks: darker chocolates, brands with no added sugars (like yogurt), snacks like home-cooked popcorn that you add coconut to, and healthy cheeses. And by heading off sugar cravings at an early age, you can head off the addiction.

K:  There are ways you can talk about the emotional side of dyslexia with your child. I also want to make the point here that not all people with dyslexia are going to have eating disorders. Using food to soothe yourself is a very natural thing to do. On the day you were born, when you were in discomfort (crying), your parents gave you food (a bottle or breast), to comfort you. So from day one, food, comfort, and love are all intertwined.

If my kids had dyslexia, this is what I feel would be important to talk to them about. I would talk to them about the uncomfortable parts of the school day. I would ask them questions such as do they feel different when they are pulled out for special tutoring? One question to ask is “what was the worst part of your day?” Then give examples when you were little and you felt bad. Name the hard emotions that you felt as a child. Talk about times when you cried. Be specific. This is an ongoing conversation. In this way, you are giving your child the opportunity to talk and feel the uncomfortable parts of life. We always want our kids to be happy, but life is messy, for all people, not just ones with dyslexia. Learning to feel uncomfortable emotions is an excellent resilience skill. Just listening to them and empathizing with them is very helpful. You will not be able to “fix” them but you can understand them.

My mother was wonderful in that she continued to tell me that I was smart but that my brain was different and it would be harder for me to read. She also read to me my textbooks all the way through high school. But she never suspected that I was hurting emotionally—I was good at hiding it. This was back in the 60s and 70s. It’s time now to talk about the shame of dyslexia. We don’t need to wallow in it and be victimized by it but instead to talk about the hard feels that come up when having dyslexia.

Q: What healthy self-soothing alternatives have you found that helps you?

C: Again, by not saying no to myself, but by noticing that I’m having an anxiety or frustration, understanding why I’m having this anxiety or frustration, and then allowing myself to have a little of something: a little chocolate or a cookie. As an adult you begin to know your own body and its limitations and you can begin to figure out how you soothe yourself without overdoing it. And that becomes easier as you get older.

K: Self-talk is one self-soothing strategy. Before I have to write, I tell myself “Yes Kathy, writing is hard but you’ve done it before, and you can do it. It’s always easier when you break it into chunks, and do one at a time: brainstorming, webbing, first draft, leave it for a time, read it aloud.” Another question I ask myself is, “is there anyone I can ask for help?” Also, “is there anyone I can call up and talk to and say, ‘I have to write something and it is going to be hard for me’?” By doing this, I’m validating my discomfort or anxiety and just want some compassion from somebody. Even the act of writing about my trepidation of writing in a journal before doing the actual writing is healing and soothing and allows me to get to it without wanting food to soothe.

Q: What advice would you offer parents to help them encourage their child who is frustrated by dyslexia?

C: Personally as a child, I found the social stigma of dyslexia as bad as the dyslexia itself. The shame and embarrassment made me feel like a loser in my mind. The trick is to not put your kids in situations where they will feel this embarrassment or shame. If you have the opportunity to do so, move your child to a school with other dyslexic kids, or an after school program, or a summer camp. Avoid activities that include reading and spelling where they may be embarrassed—programs that take kids to libraries, for example. By helping your child circumvent situations where they may be embarrassed, you will potentially avoid creating bad eating habits that could stay with them for life.

K: First of all, I would have the child brainstorm all the strengths dyslexia has given them. Usually, dyslexics are creative, they think outside the box, they are determined, and they see the big picture. Second, I would give the child examples of when in their lives they have used those skills and how it makes them unique/pretty cool/who they are. Third, I would state again the importance of talking about their frustrations. Talking about their feelings of frustration allows them to move the emotion through and out of them. Finally, watch the TED talk by Kristin Neff about the difference between self-esteem and self-compassion. By teaching your kids self-compassion, they’ll be able to comfort themselves through the hard parts of dyslexia. And by learning to give yourself self-compassion for the hard times of being a parent you will become a stronger ally for your child.

Thanks to Ali Carley for revising and editing help.

Copyright © 2016 International Dyslexia Association (IDA).

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