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Get to know your child

The diagnosis of a child's hearing loss or deafness is always a shock to parents. Mothers and fathers don't know how to cope not only with a deaf child, but also with their emotions. They need support, but do not know where to look for it. There are few professionals in Poland who know the problems of families with deaf children well. We will be addressing them in a series of articles ?Specially for parents? In this issue we focus on advice on how to deal with a deaf child. ? The first six months after diagnosis is a time that should be spent, above all, getting to know your child's reactions and finding your own way of communicating with them ? says Nina Ambroziak, a psychologist with extensive experience in working with deaf children and their families.


When parents hear a diagnosis of deafness or profound hearing loss in their child, they experience strong negative feelings. Acting under their influence, they often unwittingly behave in ways that are not conducive to their child's development. It is worthwhile for parents who have to face their child's deafness to be warned about the mistakes they might make. With this knowledge, it will be easier for them to deal with their own feelings and, above all, to avoid behaviour that may adversely affect the child's development and psyche.


More words

Parents who find out that their child cannot hear stop talking to them. The house becomes quiet. Sometimes this silence is even noticed by the neighbourhood. Neighbours are often surprised: "Do you have a deaf child? After all, it is so quiet in your house!". It seems natural to speak louder to a child who is hard of hearing or who cannot hear at all. This is why the silence in the family of a deaf child draws attention.

Silence is a reaction typical of all those who come into contact with deaf people. This was observed by Professor Marina Zalewska, a specialist in identity development disorders in deaf children, during a student internship at a diagnostic centre at the University of Warsaw, which was attended by, among others, children with hearing impairments. Professor Zalewska noted that the students who came into contact with them became violently silent. She called the difficulties that hearing people experience in contact with deaf people verbal mutilation. They can be easily explained ? for a hearing person, speaking is part of identity, a form of self-expression. In contact with a child or a deaf person, this possibility of expression is taken away from the person. The hearing person has the conviction that in the presence of a deaf person they cannot express themselves through verbal communication. Trying to speak with the knowledge that the message is not being received is extremely tiring. I remember a workshop with teachers who had worked with deaf children for years. In an experiment, one of them pretended to be a deaf child; the others were to tell him a story. The workshop participants were given 5 minutes to complete this seemingly simple task. However, after only 3 minutes, all those taking part in the experiment complained of mental and physical exhaustion.
In their own words, they found it tiring above all having to pretend to be someone other than they really were. When dealing with deaf people, learned communication patterns do not work. Therefore, telling a fairy tale required invention, new ideas, commitment ? in a word, more effort. My observations confirmed the words of Professor Zalewska, who emphasised that we cannot delegate our entire selves to contact with a deaf child. It is impossible to detach that part of identity which is related to the verbal expression of one's ?self? This is why contact with a deaf child is so burdensome that most people escape into silence.

More gestures

Moving beyond this pattern is difficult, but possible. First of all, parents or caregivers have to face their inner conviction: ? "Why should I speak to my child if he or she will not hear anyway?". This problem has already been pointed out in letters to parents of deaf children by Associate Professor Maria Góralówna, a prominent specialist in audiology and otolaryngology who was a great support for parents of deaf children for many years. She emphasised, among other things, that children with hearing impairment, even profound hearing impairment, receive part of the verbal message. Furthermore, it is not only words that are important when communicating with a hearing impaired or deaf toddler. Children are very sensitive to non-verbal signals. Facial expressions, smiles, gestures, shoulder shrugs. All of these provide a deaf child with very valuable information about how the person with him or her is feeling. This non-verbal communication is necessary for the emotional development of the child with a hearing impairment. Normally, the child's mental and linguistic development is stimulated by a so-called "word bath", whereby he or she is "immersed" in the words of his or her parents at all times. In the case of a deaf child, this bath is sometimes limited to consultation with a speech therapist, who is instructed by the parents to "look after" the child, and to speech therapy exercises that the parents do themselves at home. However, this is not natural communication, which consists of an exchange. If the mother does not speak to the child and, in addition, does not try to communicate with him in a non-verbal way, she becomes completely inaccessible to him. The little one then feels lonely from the very first days, as his experiences are not perceived by her. Loneliness is the most common problem for deaf people. Its main cause is the impaired development of one's own identity (I don't know myself, I don't know what my passions and interests are) and the inability to find oneself in a social group. These skills are developed in childhood through authentic contact with the mother ? building a sense of closeness, sharing emotions not only verbally. Meanwhile ? according to research ? mothers of deaf children are not very sensitive to the non-verbal messages they send. Even less sensitive than mothers of children with other disabilities. With this awareness, parents can control their behaviour more by making further attempts to ?tune in? to their deaf children.

The child at the centre of attention

At the moment of diagnosis, parents begin to go through a process that in psychology is called ?mourning? The first stage of this process is denial and isolation. Mothers and fathers cannot or simply do not want to believe that the doctors' judgment is true. In my practice, I have yet to meet parents who have completed the diagnosis after the tests carried out in one centre. They spend the first six months of their child's life searching for facilities for hearing impairment diagnosis. They ask for additional tests in the hope that these will undermine the diagnosis. Parents are so focused on the diagnosis that they stop concentrating on the child. They don't try to read his reactions, they don't try to be with the child in his world, which is slightly different. Different because it is not defined by sounds, but by many other sensations, such as touch. If the child cannot hear or hears badly, he begins to define himself through tactile stimuli (gentle stroking has a soothing effect, stronger stroking stimulates the so-called deep sensory system, but is also associated with firmness). In this case, close physical contact with the parents is particularly important. This is why it is better to carry a deaf infant in a sling on the chest than in even the most comfortable pram. In order to access the world in which a deaf toddler lives, it is necessary to observe him. Everyone reacts slightly differently, so it is difficult to make universal suggestions about their behaviour. Every mother has to build up an interaction with her child in her own way. Interaction means interaction ? one party creates a message and the other responds to it. A mother who communicates verbally or non-verbally to her child should wait for the child's reaction. In my psychological practice
, however, I have only met one mother who spoke to the child and then observed what the child's response was. She would change her tone of voice and then look again at the toddler's response. She consciously wanted to recognise the child's behaviour so that she could read the child's emotions and intentions based on her reactions. This mother, however, was unique. Almost all mothers of deaf children communicate messages to the child without waiting for the child's reactions. They conduct a kind of monologue, because ? in their conviction ? since the toddler cannot hear or speak, exchanging messages is impossible. This is a false assumption. Its effects can be the source of the child's future problems in dealing with others. Incorrect communication patterns acquired in early childhood result in the child not joining in conversations or even being reluctant to interact with people when they are older. Even when ? for example ? after an implant, there are no longer problems with speaking and understanding.

A mother, not a teacher!

Maternal instinct is not enough to find oneself in the role of mother of a deaf child. Moreover, the toddler's disability always hits the sense of maternal identity. In order to cope with the ?failure?, she assumes the false identity of a teacher. Why a teacher? Because mothers of children who are born deaf or severely hearing impaired usually have one dream ? they want their daughter or son to be as efficient as their peers. Therefore, they become intrusive towards them ? whenever there is a possibility, they try to teach them something. From a psychological point of view, this is detrimental ? the mother-teachers are in a way imprisoning the child, depriving it of the chance for proper emotional development. Although the involvement of parents in the rehabilitation of a deaf or hard-of-hearing child can be great, it is most important that they remain parents first and foremost. This is why I believe that at this difficult stage in their lives, they need psychological support, especially women who are more emotional and more likely to become depressed. So that they become aware that with a deaf child they themselves often become deaf ? they fall silent, sometimes not even attempting to communicate non-verbally with them. Meanwhile, the first six months after the diagnosis should be devoted primarily to being with the child. This is the only way to give a deaf child, and therefore a disadvantaged child ? as parents often think ? a good start in life. The ability to communicate, the emotional sensitivity to the child's needs and the good relationships built up during this time will certainly pay dividends in the future.

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