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Bullying and Hearing Loss

By Krystyann Krywko, Ed.D.

“Hey kid, what are those things on your ears?” I sit on the park bench as two older boys approach my 5-year-old son on the playground. “They’re my hearing aids, they help me hear,” he shouts back over his shoulder, as he continues to climb the monkey bars, barely missing a beat. The two older boys shrug and head off; I take a deep breath.

As any parent of a child who is deaf or hard of hearing knows, reactions to the hearing aids and cochlear implants that our children use can range from curiosity to gentle teasing to outright bullying. Bullying is a serious problem in many U.S. schools; it is estimated that 30 percent of students in grades 6-10 have been involved in some sort of a bullying incident (Coloroso, 2004). While there are no specific data on the number of children with disabilities who are targeted, research suggests that children with observable disabilities (such as hearing aids and cochlear implants) may be twice as likely to be bullied (Sullivan, 2006).

What is Bullying and How Does it Affect Children


     Signs of Bullying

  • Refusal to go to school or sudden lack of interest in school.
  • Change in grades.
  • No longer shows interest in family or school activities.
  • Appears sad or angry after a phone call/text message/email.
  • Does or says something that is out of character.  

In her book “The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander,” Barbara Coloroso (2004) suggests that bullying is not about anger; instead it stems from intolerance towards differences. Coloroso states that it can be hard to draw the line between ordinary meanness and bullying because not every incident or unkind remark is bullying. It’s important to help your child understand that hurtful remarks and behaviors are not about something that is wrong or bad about them. Instead it is the other child who is displaying inappropriate behavior.

Children need to be taken seriously when they talk about behavior or words used by other children that hurt them. However, getting your child to talk about bullying can be difficult, especially as they get older. The reasons children don’t want to talk about bullying range from being ashamed of the situation to thinking that no one, not even an adult, will be able to help them. “Children usually give us clues. We just need to be tuned into them,” says Coloroso. “If your gut says it’s happening, it probably is.”

“Some children have a naturally strong sense of self and are extremely resilient in the face of unkind remarks,” says Jennifer Reesman, director of the DREAM (Deafness-Related Evaluations and More) Clinic in Baltimore, Md. “At young ages they have this attitude about their hearing loss of ‘This is who I am. I’m okay. If you don’t like it you can leave it.’” However, not all children have this built in self-assurance. Reesman and other experts suggest that parents should take time to equip their child with coping skills to make sure they have a plan to deal with bullying situations before they occur. This preparation can help your child deal with unkind remarks and behaviors so they know how to react when stung with an upsetting feeling.

Helping Your Child be More Resilient

What is your attitude?

Parental feelings and emotions about hearing loss can be a huge factor in the development of your child’s self image and how they feel about their abilities. If you are conflicted about your child’s hearing loss and unsure of how to react to it, your child can pick up on your feelings and internalize that there is something wrong with her; that she is not complete because she has to use a cochlear implant or a hearing aid.

On the other hand, if your child feels she is perfect just the way she is, she will be better able to internalize these feelings and when someone does call her a name or puts her down, she is better able to roll with it because she knows the problem lies with the person doing the name-calling rather than with herself.

What is a friend? 

The friendship world can be tricky to navigate. Some children have a difficult time distinguishing between supportive relationships and relationships that have a different motive. “Children want to fit in, they want to be part of a group,” says Reesman. “Often I hear of situations where the child will go along with a group that is really making fun of him, because he doesn’t realize the difference.”

Reesman suggests that families talk about friendship at home. “This shared, open communication is important in building resiliency in your child,” says Reesman. “Start at an early age, and discuss the idea of friendship. Help your child understand the difference between what friends do and what friends don’t do. Find out who your child’s friends are, invite them over to your house, and stay connected with how they talk and play together.”

It’s important to remember that friends and family members often tease one another good naturedly. The difference between friendly and unfriendly teasing has to do with the cues that surround the words – tone of voice, body posture and facial expressions. These are all social cues that children who are deaf and hard of hearing often have a difficult time picking up on. Role play with your child – say phrases to them in a friendly voice and a mean voice, have them distinguish between the two and have them practice what they could do in response.

Give your child the language 

Language can be an area of weakness for children with hearing loss, so provide your child with the words and explanations that will help her explain her hearing loss to others. Teaching your child a few key phrases to use in response to bullying situations can go a long way in helping her become more confident.

Reesman suggests keeping the responses simple and age appropriate. Make sure your child can answer questions about her hearing loss, how her hearing aids or processors help her hear and what her FM system does. Help her practice at home so she becomes really comfortable with her explanation.

Build friendship skills 

Research shows that children who are bullied typically have inadequate social skills (Olewus, 1993). “The difficulty with this,” says Lois Heymann, director of the Steven and Shelly Einhorn Communication Center at the Center for Hearing and Communication in New York City, “is that well-developed listening skills are really what form the basis of well-developed social skills, which is something that children with hearing loss need some extra practice with.”

Hearing loss can reduce the number of opportunities that children may have for incidental learning of social information where they “overhear” their friends and teachers negotiating social spaces, and this gap in knowledge can increase their vulnerability. Children should practice taking turns in a conversation and asking questions about others; learn how to advocate for themselves when they difficulties following conversations; and learn how to make “small talk” with others, complimenting them on what they are wearing or how they play a particular sport.

It can also be difficult for your child to read the expressions of others and she also might be unaware of the signals she is sending with her own body language. For example, approaching a new group is easier when you smile, or expressing excitement when you are asked to join a game. Or she might not know how to show that she likes someone so she comes across as awkward or unsure. Practice with your child at home. Have her make faces that mirror the way she is feeling (happy, sad, excited). Also practice body language skills…“How could you approach a group and look friendly?”

Build “social currency” 

Richard Horowitz, parenting coach and author of “Family Centered Parenting” (2010), describes social currency as “where a child stands in relation to others within their community, all those unwritten rules that are part of schoolyard life.” Help your child feel secure in their abilities and in what they have to contribute to a group. “Everybody has something they are good at,” continues Horowitz.

Oftentimes these skills stand out naturally and your child might be a natural athlete or a gifted artist. However, developing a healthy sense of accomplishment doesn’t only come from huge accomplishments. Developing a passion in activities as diverse as origami, Lego design or rock climbing are ways your child can find success in social situations.

“It’s really about helping your child realize that their hearing loss doesn’t define them,” says one mother, whose daughter wears bilateral hearing aids, “My daughter’s hearing loss is only such a small part of who she is. She is an accomplished dancer, soccer player and an animal lover. If someone is making fun of her, I tell her they are not really taking the time to get to know what a great person she is.”

Make connections

Be conscious of the friendships and connections that your child has. In some ways this can be the best defense against bullying. “If your child feels connected and valued in one group of friends, they will be less vulnerable to mistreatment in another location,” says Reesman.

Have your child connect with children who have typical hearing as well as children with hearing loss, children who live in your neighborhood and children from different areas. Look for opportunities for your child to develop friendships outside school through different groups, activities and teams. 

Make a plan 

Talk to your child about bullying. Teach her that some people may do or say mean things and create a plan together that can help her deal with potential bullying and teasing incidents. Research shows that children who reported and discussed bullying and teasing with an adult were better able to deal with the hurtful behavior than those who didn’t (Davis & Nixon, 2009).

“Family meetings can be a great place for children to gain practice and confidence before problems occur,” suggests Horowitz. “Families can practice different responses to use in a situation and also how to approach an adult for help.”

“One thing that works for us,” says Christina Danese, mother of a teen with bilateral implants, “is we give the other child three chances. If the remarks or behaviors continue, then my son goes to an adult, whether that is myself, a teacher or other adult at the school. This way my son has an opportunity to solve the problem, but he also knows that adults will help if needed.”

Reesman also stresses the importance of having a safe person that your child can go to for help. “Many adults are unsure of how to respond to bullying behavior and may try to brush it off as a normal part of childhood.” Designate an adult either at school (teacher, coach, therapist or administrator) that will listen to your child no matter what and will take their concerns seriously. It can make a huge difference in the life of your child if they know they have someone they can talk about things with and go to for help.

Putting it into Practice 

Unfortunately, as parents we cannot protect or prevent our children from having to deal with hurtful situations. But what we can do is to make sure that they are aware that these situations may occur and that they are prepared to deal with them. Do give your child some space to solve their own problems so they are able to test and develop their skills, but also remain vigilant and aware of changes in your child’s emotions and behavior.