10 Ideas for Parenting a Child with Hearing Loss

By David Luterman, D.Ed.

VV_17(6) LutermanFor the past 45 years I have been privileged to work with parents of newly diagnosed children with hearing loss. In 1965, I began a family-centered, early intervention program, the Thayer Lindsley Family-Centered Nursery in Boston, Mass., that featured a nursery and individual therapy for the child as well as a support group for the parents. The parents were required to actively participate in all aspects of the Nursery and I have been facilitating the support group since its inception. Parents have taught me much over the years, as have my four children who have typical hearing. Now on the eve of retirement I want to share what I have learned. Here is the “Luterman 10” for parenting a child with hearing loss.

1. Parenting is Inherently Conflictual

The parents’ job is to teach their child the rules of their culture, both the macro society and the micro culture of the family. These rules are learned; children have no inborn knowledge and they learn by testing limits imposed by their parents. Therefore, as the child tests boundaries, there is conflict. It is the parents’ responsibility to set limits for their child, but over the long haul they must give ground to accommodate the child’s growth, eventually ceding full control to the child/adult. I often tell parents, “if you are not fighting with your child, you are not doing it right.” I usually get the response, “not to worry, we are doing it right.”

2. Making Mistakes

There are many crucial decisions parents must make. Trying to raise a child with a hearing loss mistake-free is an exercise doomed to failure. For me, it is only a “mistake” if you do it a second time; the first time through it is data. Parents do not owe their child error-free decisions. What they owe their child is to make a decision on the best available data and change the course of action if it is not working out. The “mistake” parents of children with hearing loss often make is to stay with a program longer than they should for fear of admitting that they were wrong or alienating the professionals. Parents need to be monitors of their own decisions and advocates for their child.

3. Teaching Failure

Children need to learn how to cope with adversity and, therefore, need to experience failure while growing up. Parents of children who have special needs tend to over-protect and shield them from failure, but the child must experience failure in order to grow. Growing up without coping skills limits a child severely because the adult experience is that we don’t always succeed in what we do. It is the overcoming of frustration that enables us to grow, so mild frustration is an incentive to growth. One of the hardest things for any parent to do is to stand back and let his or her child experience failure. We need to be judicious about it because if we let the child experience too much failure, they become risk averse and not enough failure, they become frustration intolerant. Parents of children who are deaf or hard of hearing have thin margins to work with, and recognizing when to let go and when to protect is the art of parenting.

4. Developmental Issues versus Hearing Loss Issues

It is always hard for parents to distinguish between behavior that is due to the hearing loss and behavior that is developmental in nature. Parents usually err in the direction of giving too much credit for the deafness and not holding their child to the same standard of conduct as a child who has typically hearing. A child must learn to take responsibility for their own choices and they must experience the consequences of their own behavior – if the child spills the milk, he or she needs to help clean it up! This is why we have always kept an early childhood teacher as well as a child who has typical hearing in the Nursery. The teacher and the child are there to remind us of the developmental prerogatives. At the 2-year-old level, almost all behavior is developmental in nature; 2-year-old children with all levels of hearing are prone to ignore their parents.

5. Hearing Loss is a Family Affair

Family therapists tell us that the family is a system in which all the parts are intricately linked, meaning that when one part of the system is damaged, all parts of the system, even seemingly remote ones, are affected. Siblings and grandparents also deserve professional attention. One of the first topics that usually emerge in a parent group is the imbalance of attention paid to siblings who have typical hearing. Within the Nursery we always try to have siblings participate in the nursery and therapy if the activities are age appropriate. Grandparents also deserve attention. For them, it is a double wound as they are concerned for their child as well as for their grandchild. They seldom get a chance to talk about their feelings; within the Nursery, we try to have a grandparent-only support group. These are usually the most emotionally intense groups that I facilitate.

6. Tending to the Primary Relationship

Parenting any child, but especially one with a hearing loss, is a very demanding job. It is a 24/7 responsibility that requires vigilance and, at times, difficult decisions that demand a lot of thought and attention. This is a job that is best done within a supportive relationship where ownership and responsibility can be shared. Single parents can and do turn out well-rounded children. Those that do it best have found other places of support other than a marital partner. It is absolutely necessary that time and attention be paid to the primary relationship. It is easy to damage a relationship because too much energy is devoted to the parenting and not enough to marital maintenance. I often tell parents that the parenting, though very intense, is a relatively short-term proposition; the partnership is long term and therefore needs ongoing attention.

7. Good Parenting/Good Self Care

It is often hard for parents to see that they are the lynchpin of the family. The parent is the most important family member and therefore requires care. Leadership is what you have left over after you have taken care of one’s self. Often the best thing a parent can do for their child is to take time for themselves; running on empty won’t cut it. A long walk or a cup of tea can go a long way in the parenting process. Happy parents usually turn out happy children.

8. The Bottom Line

Some parents are motivated to try to overcome their child’s hearing loss. To have a child that speaks typically and integrated into mainstream setting can become the main goal. However, the child may see this as a denial of the hearing loss and a rejection of who the child is. This can lead to an unhappy child who rejects their parents’ goals. In my opinion, the bottom line should be to have a child who is comfortable in his or her skin and is interpersonally happy. The listening and spoken language skills, while important, are secondary and children need to be accepted for who they are, not for who they might become. Parents need to be able to distinguish between what the child’s needs are and what is in the best interests of their child.

9. Letting Go

The parents’ job is to create an independent adult who no longer needs them. To that end, parents must gradually cede control of their child’s life to the child. This must start early and be ongoing. There is nothing more important than teaching a child to take responsibility for the choices he or she makes. Parents must set the boundaries for their child at a very early age and within that universe, give the child real choices and allow the child suffer the consequences of their choices. Eventually, the parent should give up all control. If the parent becomes so embedded within the parenting, to the extent that the primary relationship is negatively impacted and the parent neglects other aspects of his or her life to do the parenting, then letting go becomes very hard. Many parents can hardly wait for their child to leave home so they can devote more energy to other aspects of their lives.

10. The Gift

There is a great deal of pain, anxiety and sheer hard work in the process of successfully raising a child who has a hearing loss. Yet within that travail, strange as it may seem, there is much opportunity for joy and growth. We give to life what life demands and hearing loss can become a powerful teacher, helping parents develop skills and capacity that otherwise might lie latent. I am always struck at the resiliency of parents and children. They stretch to do what needs to be done and in that stretching they grow. This is the gift the child brings. My wish for all parents is that in the course of raising their child, they find the gift. For me it has been a marvelous life work, and the families I’ve worked with have brought to me a great gift of giving direction and meaning to my life’s work.

Luterman, D., D.Ed.(2010). 10 Ideas for Parenting a Child with Hearing Loss. Volta Voices, 17(6), 18-21.