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Children of Deaf Adults:

 

COMMUNICATION & PARENTING ISSUES IN FAMILIES WITH DEAF PARENTS AND HEARING CHILDREN

Kerri Clark
April 24, 2003

“Mother father deaf” is a phrase commonly used in the deaf community to identify a hearing child of deaf parents. Statistics show that over 90% of all deaf parents have hearing children, referred to as CODA’s (children of deaf adults.) These are families that bridge the divide between the hearing and deaf worlds, thus facing unique communication and parenting challenges. Although there is much research about deaf children of hearing parents, little research exists about communication and parenting issues in coda families. The following is a summary of some of those issues.

Language is an important part of one’s cultural identity. Although not all deaf persons use ASL, it is considered the single most important element that binds the deaf community together (Filer and Filer.) Many deaf persons attend state residential schools for the deaf, because it is there that ASL and important cultural traditions of the deaf community are learned. The deaf often have negative experiences with the hearing world, and many deaf associate only on a very limited basis with the hearing. Coda’s often serve as interpreters for their parents, thus becoming the communication link between their parents and the hearing world. There are several concerns surrounding children that serve as interpreters for their parents. One concern is that children are expected to interpret in situations that are considered inappropriate, whether its subject or age appropriateness, placing them in confusing and vulnerable situations. This creates for some hearing children an unwanted pressure and burden that they are too young to resist or negotiate (Singleton & Tittle.) It is quite interesting to note that most of these situations are ‘encouraged’ by members of the hearing world. On the other hand, coda’s also enjoy the richness associated with the knowledge of language and cultures of two worlds and report that maintaining this ‘special’ role in the family structure helped them gain responsibility, maturity and the ability to empathize with others (Preston, 1994.)

Protection is another issue that coda’s face within the family unit. The hearing child may not interpret for their parents the insensitive remarks or comments made by a hearing person who assumed everyone in the family was deaf because they were all signing. Often times coda’s experience isolation and rejection from peers because they do not feel comfortable or want to associate with the deaf family members, thus creating a situation in which the coda cannot openly discuss emotions and feelings of rejection with their parents for fear of hurting their feelings. Children also may become hyper vigilant, listening for things that their parents could not hear such as ‘monsters’, burglars, smoke alarms, and cracking sounds of the ceiling collapsing (Filer & Filer.) Many feel that this could be considered as ‘role reversal’ and could later cause problems for the parent in later years when teenage trials and power struggles take place.

Another issue, which is perhaps the most critical, in my opinion, is the issue of communication between the deaf parent and the hearing child. Studies show that most deaf parents “have no particular problem” accepting their child’s ability to hear, but are “acutely aware” that parenthood forces them to address things “they have no knowledge about.” (Sell) The family power structure is greatly influenced by the flow of information. The flow of information in a hearing family is open within the family system and outside the family system to the larger community, but the flow of information changes drastically with the addition of a deaf member; moreover, it can be severely restricted when families with deaf and hearing members do not have a mutual communication system (Rienzi.) Although ASL is a legitimate language for family interaction, it is important to note that different dyads within a deaf-parented family could be using different communication systems, some ASL and other not. Deaf parents may use ASL between themselves but use a mixed mode of communication with their hearing children. Furthermore, communication between a deaf parent and a hearing child may not always be effective. The deaf parent may use fragmented speech to the child, but expect the child to sign back to them. This causes an obvious problem as to how the child is to learn sign when the parent is not signing to him/her. Thus, it is not unusual for the child to understand what the parent expresses, but not vice versa. (Rienzi) Parents may have a misguided notion that they should not sign with their child simply because the child is hearing, and some parents have reported not signing with their child in order to prevent the over reliance on their child to serve as their interpreter. Such parents elect to speak to their child with reduced speech clarity and probable ungrammatical form. The end result of this situation may be that the hearing child cannot sign and the parent-child relationship becomes restricted and asymmetrical. (Rienzi)

In summary, research and parenting literature generally find that deaf parents are competent and caring and have excellent relationships with their hearing children. Although there are some specific issues involving communication, it does not appear that deaf parents are at a greater risk for serious family dysfunction than hearing parents of hearing children. (Rienzi) Today, there are many resources available that can help protect coda’s and their parents from many of the issues discussed. First, professional interpreters should be used whenever possible for situations that might be inappropriate for the coda to interpret such as adult conversation, legal issues and school matters. Second, deaf parents should make sure that they tap into resources to help them achieve a sense of independence and the ability to be the ‘protector’ in the household. Parents should have open and frank discussions regarding discrimination and give ‘what to do’ suggestions to their children when those situations arise. Thirdly, and most important, deaf parents should make sure that they teach their hearing child the form of communication that is predominately used by them. It is critical for the hearing child to be able to communicate his/her feelings with the parent and not just serve as an interpreter of the parent’s feelings and decisions.  

References

 Filer, D., & Filer, C. (2000). Practical Considerations For Counselors Working With Hearing Children of Deaf Parents. Journal of Counseling & Development, Winter 2000, Vol. 78, Issue 1.

 Rienzi, B. (1990). Influences and Adaptability in Families with Deaf Parents and Hearing Children. American Annals of the Deaf, 135, 402-408.

 Sell, Jill. (2001). Deaf Parents, Hearing Children Face Communication Challenges. http://www.newhouse.com/archive/ 


 


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