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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 is deaf, it’s easy to be overwhelmed with new information and lost in a period of uncertainty. The siblings of a deaf child may find the news especially confusing if they don’t understand what’s happening and contend with varying emotions such as sadness, insecurity and jealousy. It’s important to make sure children are included in the process of adjustment and they feel reassured. Here are some simple strategies to support the siblings of a deaf child.

Explaining

For many parents, telling the family about a child being deaf can be challenging, especially explaining it to children. Some find it helps to use stories, books, facial expressions 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 ear muffs. 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 their deaf sibling ‘grow out of it’ or is it because ‘s/he’s a girl/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 sibling 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 sibling.

Feelings

As most of us know, growing up with a brother or sister has its up and down sides. Children will fall foul of sibling rivalry and jealousy, no doubt 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/sister
  • having a responsibility for their deaf brother/sister
  • resentment of their brother/sister having more attention because of their deafness
  • embarrassment about people staring at their deaf brother/sister
  • worry about the future
  • guilt about their brother/sister’s need for extra support
  • feeling alone and not sure who to talk to about their feelings
  • happiness playing with their deaf brother/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/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 – 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 the pressure of 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.”

Siblings also enjoy positive aspects, 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 in the early years is vital – this way, siblings can develop emotional, personal and social skills with their deaf brother/sister. There are many different ways deaf children can communicate, and the whole family will have to 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 can include meal times or when a parent is driving or doing chores, as people talk rather than sign while using their hands. This can result in stilted conversations, with people stopping to interpret.

Parents’ tips

  • Be patient and understanding with siblings – it takes time adjusting to the changes.
  • Encourage them to find out more about deafness and what it’ll mean in the family.
  • Try to make sure children get equal time and attention, and set aside alone time for each sibling.
  • Take time to explain and share information of both worlds – deaf and hearing.
  • Take your children to events where there are other deaf children and siblings – it can reduce the isolation they may feel.
  • See the person and not the deafness first, and do all the normal things – deafness doesn’t stop you playing and having fun together.