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Having a deaf child in the family

Photo: We have strategies to support siblings of deaf children

When you find out your child has a hearing loss, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed with new information and the pressure of getting the right support for your child. Your other children may find the news confusing, especially if they don’t understand what’s happening, and feel a range of emotions because of all the changes. They may feel sad, insecure or even jealous of the time you need to give to your deaf child. It’s important to make sure the whole family are included in the process of adjustment, and that they feel reassured.

Hester is mum to Harold.
“Our daughter couldn't understand why Harold was ignoring her when she called to him and at times she did get upset. We decided to give her as much information as we reasonably could. We got her to explain to us how we hear and what we can hear. We then said that her brother didn't have any of that and as such we needed to communicate differently with him.”

Delleep is dad to Isla (6) and Anya (3). Anya is profoundly deaf and wears hearing aids.
“We explained that it was like wearing glasses. Mummy needs glasses to see, and Isla needs hearing aids to hear.”

Here are some simple strategies to support brothers and sisters of a deaf child.

Explaining

For many parents, telling the family about a child being deaf can be challenging, especially explaining it to children. It may be helpful to use stories, books, and games – anything to help siblings understand.

One parent said: “We wanted to make sure they understood what deafness meant. We found a storybook with a deaf mouse which I read to them at bedtime.”

Another parent used it as an opportunity to be inventive: “We decided to play a game of giving everyone earmuffs. We asked our children what they thought it was like to be deaf and how we can help.”

Parents have told us children ask questions such as “will my sister grow out of it?” or “is it because he’s a boy?” Some wanted to know why they were deaf, asking if their parents could have prevented it. Others want to know the implications for their own lives, why the deafness can’t be cured, and why their brother or sister is the only deaf person in the family.

“I felt a little bit sad because I knew I wouldn't be able to talk to him that much and I didn't know what hearing aids would do,” said one sister.

Feelings

As most of us know, growing up with a brother or sister has its ups and downs. Many children experience sibling rivalry and jealousy, often resulting in the occasional squabble! However, children with deaf siblings may experience a host of conflicting feelings because of their sibling’s deafness, including:

  • not knowing how to support their deaf brother or sister
  • feeling a responsibility for their deaf brother or sister
  • resenting their brother or sister having more attention because of their deafness
  • embarrassment about people staring at their deaf brother or sister
  • worry about the future
  • guilt about their brother or sister’s need for extra support
  • feeling alone and not sure who to talk to about their feelings
  • happiness playing with their deaf brother or sister
  • pride in being able to communicate with their deaf brother or sister
  • excitement about meeting other siblings of deaf children.

It’s important for children to be able to express their feelings. Some feel their brother or sister gets more attention, gets treated more leniently and gets priority, and some feel left out, like this sibling:

“Sometimes my sister gets all the attention but most of the time we do things all together that we can all understand.”

Many siblings feel responsible for their deaf brother or sister, adopting a caring role. Many act as interpreters for them if they use sign language– some feel proud to help, others aren’t so happy and would prefer to be free to enjoy themselves. One sibling explained:

“At the holidays I wanted to have a day with my friends, and my dad said I had to take my sister even though I didn’t want to.” Another added: “Sometimes I miss what my friends are saying as I have to interpret for her.”

Friends can be an issue – some siblings don’t want their deaf brother or sister to feel left out but feel pressured to including them. And some worry that though friends are supportive and respectful, they won’t cope well:

“Sometimes when you have friends round, they seem to be scared to say anything because they don’t want to offend you.”

The whole family can feel some really positive aspects of having a deaf child in the family, including being proud of signing, and having a strong compassion for others. “I don't see my sister as a 'deaf sister' – she is simply my sister, whom I love and would do anything for – whether she be deaf or not,” said one sibling.

Communication

Developing good communication as early as possible is vital – this way, siblings can develop emotional, personal and social skills alongside their deaf brother or sister. There are many different ways deaf children choose to communicate, and the whole family can adapt or learn new communication skills.

“When I first found out I had a deaf sister, I felt very disappointed and nervous because I did not know how I would talk to her. I soon learnt sign language and can now tell her jokes and make her laugh,” said one sibling.

Communication is more than sign language, lip-reading or spoken language – body language, facial expressions and being included in activities are equally important, as this sibling explained:

“My brother talks and lip-reads so I have to talk clearly but I also use my face to show what mood I’m in so he understands. We all play together on activities and I make sure he understands.”

Tricky occasions where it may be difficult for a deaf child to follow conversations might include mealtimes or when a parent is driving or doing chores, as family members are unable to sign if they’re using their hands. This can result in interrupted conversations, with people stopping to interpret.

Advice from other parents

  • Be patient and understanding with siblings – it takes time adjusting to the changes.
  • Encourage and help all your children to find out more about deafness and what it’ll mean to the family.
  • . Plan to have special time with each child as regularly as you can
  • Although your deaf child may need more of your time, as long as your hearing children have special time with you they will know they are loved too.
  • Take time to explain and share aspects of both deaf and hearing culture with both deaf and hearing siblings.
  • Everyone has their own feelings – your other children may feel differently to you about their brother or sister’s deafness but that’s OK.
  • Take your children to events where there are other deaf children and siblings – it can reduce the isolation they may feel.
  • Remind your children that their deaf brother or sister can still do all the normal things children do – deafness doesn’t stop them playing and having fun together.
  • Remember all families need time to be together, but some time apart too.
  • Your whole family needs you and it can be overwhelming to meet everyone’s needs. However busy you are, you need to make time to do something for yourself each day, so you can be there for them when they need you most.