Family Mealtimes: What you need to think about when your child has hearing loss

a_family_eating_dinnerToday is the start of “Eat Dinner with Your Family” week – a nationwide initiative to remind parents that what kids want most at the dinner table is their family.

Research suggests that children who eat dinner with their families:

  • receive better grades
  • eat more nutritious foods
  • are less likely to engage in risky behaviors (drugs/alcohol/promiscuity)

All that is great, but of course, the importance of families eating together isn’t just about the food – it’s about taking the time to sit down together as a family and talk – share stories, discuss problems and dilemmas that occurred during the day, and talk about future goals and plans.

However, for children with hearing loss meal times can be one of the most difficult places to follow conversations. Take the time to think about what occurs during your family meal and what adjustments you can make. The following tips can help

What else is going on in your eating area? If you have typical hearing it’s easy to drown out a noisy dishwasher or a whistling tea kettle and focus on the conversation, but for a child with hearing loss it is difficult to tune out additional noise. Beware of background noises that are happening during a meal, which ones can you reduce (do you really need to eat with the TV or the radio on?) Ask your child which noises bother her during mealtime.

What’s filling your space Sounds likes to bounce around empty spaces and echoes and reverberations make it difficult to hear the gist of a conversation. Kitchens and other eating areas often have bare floors which can contribute to echoes. Will it help if you put tennis/rubber balls on chair legs? Is it possible to put a rug under your table (don’t be afraid of making a mess of your rug there are some great indoor/outdoor rugs you can use and the best part if you can literally take it outside once a month and house it down!)

Where can I sit? Think about where your child sits during meals. Shadows on family members faces, or light coming from behind the speaker can make it difficult for a child with hearing loss to focus on the speakers mouth if they are trying to lip read.

Mind your manners. Talking with your mouth full of food is not only bad manners, but it can also distort sounds that your child needs to hear. Remind other family members to finish chewing before they contribute to the conversation.

Who said that? Multiple conversations are difficult for a child with hearing loss to follow. Be aware of what conversation he is a part of and help him follow the speaker. Depending on the age of your child you can either ask the speaker to slow down, or your child can begin to advocate for themselves.

I’ll get back to you on that It can take a little extra time for your child think of an answer to a question, or to get her thoughts in order to share a story. Let other family members know that it’s okay to have a pause in the conversation and help your child with some prompts like: “What happened next?” or “How did that make you feel?”

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Becoming Stuck in Your Child’s Hearing Loss

349468_struggleOver the years I have spoken with numerous parents, from a personal as well as a professional perspective and while every family responds differently to a hearing loss diagnosis, there are also some characteristics that more successful families share.

Adjust Your Attitude

I have written about this before, but your attitude and acceptance of your child’s hearing loss goes a long way to creating a more peaceful climate for everyone. Children are really good at sensing the moods of others. If you are stressed and tense all the time about your child’s diagnosis, your child will begin to feel that there is something not good about their hearing loss.

Yoshinaga-Itano and Abdala de Uzcategui, (2001) have shown that parents of children with mild to moderate hearing loss are often more stressed than parents of children with more profound losses. Reasons can be they face more educational and therapeutic choices; also there is the potential that their child will have further hearing loss which can be stressful.

While I understand these stresses, having been through them, I also know the power of practicing a positive attitude.

Talk About It

Get real comfortable talking about your child’s hearing loss. When your child sees how easily you talk about hearing loss they will feel more comfortable about themselves.

If you don’t talk about and discuss hearing loss with your child then they will be uncomfortable discussing it with other people. They won’t know how to answer questions, or how to speak up when their needs aren’t being met.

 

Keep Things in Perspective

Yes, your child has hearing loss and no; it is not the end of the world. Yes, your child will need assistance with communication either through a device (such as hearing aids or cochlear implants), or through the learning of ASL or lip-reading. But the opportunities today are limitless.

Move Beyond “Why Me?”

If you are okay with your child’s hearing loss, they will be okay. There will be some changes that will need to be made with regard to education and communication needs, but what won’t change is the need your child has for love and support. Find the joy in your child’s voice, or the thrill of having them sign their first full thought. It’s about adapting and coming to terms with the child you have, rather than the child you don’t have.

 

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One Family’s Hearing Loss Story

sonIt has been almost four years since my son was diagnosed with late onset hearing loss. I try to recall what our life was like prior to his diagnosis, but that seems like another lifetime, another family. I mention this because an essay I wrote about our world prior to his diagnosis is published this week on Brain, Child magazine’s website. (You can read the essay here.)

I can’t even begin to describe all the changes that have occurred in those four years. Hearing loss has become a part of our life, but not in the way that I imagined.

When my son was first diagnosed I saw the hearing loss and hearing aids as being front and center in our lives. I thought that is all that people would focus on, all that we would be focused on. But, instead, the hearing aids have slipped slowly into the background, they have become secondary.

My son turns seven in a few short weeks. He loves Ninjago, playing the piano, riding his bike, and playing basketball with his friends at recess. He paints, plays ice hockey, skis, and swims. He loves to tell jokes, read books, and write stories – and oh yeah – he wears bilateral hearing aids. No big deal.

 

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Are you really listening?

Photo credit: Alex BrudaAccording to Merriam-Webster there are three subtly different parts to the verb “listen”:

 

to pay attention to sound

to hear something with thoughtful attention: give consideration

to be alert to catch an expected sound

 

I find it interesting that being alert and paying attention are highlighted in each meaning. As parents we pride ourselves on our multitasking abilities. Look how easily we can get dinner ready, send a text message, and catch up on the day’s news, all while listening to our child talk about the art project she worked on at school.

It is easy to fool ourselves that we are listening. After all we have alerted our ears to pick up the sound of our child’s voice, but listening involves more than simply using your ears – it involves your eyes, ears, and heart (Medwid & Weston, 1995).

As parents of children who are DHH it is particularly important to pay attention when our children are speaking. Communication becomes exhausting, and breaks down easily, when the listener doesn’t understand what the speaker has said, but pretends they do.

Here are some tips to help you listen better:

  • Pay attention with your eyes. If ASL is part of your communication method, then you are way ahead on this one! In order to be an effective communicator in ASL you need to pay attention with your entire eyes – on the lookout for subtle differences in gestures and facial expressions.
  • However, if you and your child communicate orally/aurally you should be paying just as much attention with your eyes. Your child is constantly sending you visual messages that go along with their words – body language and facial expressions. If you truly are too busy to pay full attention at the moment tell your child: “I really want to listen to what you have to say. Just give me five minutes to chop these onions and I will be able to hear you better.”
  • Repeat what your child says. There is no need to give a “play by play” of what your child has just said. But if your child is trying to tell you about difficult feelings, has a specific request, or is simply telling you a long story it is a good idea to repeat back what you just heard. This can clear up any confusion or misunderstanding that might be happening on either part. It can be as simple as saying something like, “So, you want to know if we are going to the store before or after dinner?”
  • Be warned – repetition is a must when your child says something that you do not understand. Never pretend that you understand when you don’t – your child will begin to feel like you are not really listening and won’t always talk the time to tell you what they are thinking. What’s the point if you are only pretending to understand?

 

  • Listening all the way through: We like to be prepared as parents. We want to make sure we can answer our child’s questions; help they understand their feelings; and generally like to stay one step ahead. This often means that halfway through listening we tune out, or begin to think ahead, of what our answer might be. It’s okay to take some time to put together an answer after your child has finished speaking. It’s even okay if we “hem” and “haw” a little bit. When you take the time to slow down you can ensure that you understand exactly what your child is trying to saw.

 

Taking the time to listen with your eyes, repeat what your child has said, and listening all the way through, not only helps increase your communication with your child, but also serves as a model for what your child needs to do when they are in a conversation that they don’t understand.

Sources: Medwid & Weston (1995) Kid-Friendly Parenting with Deaf and Hard of Hearing Children, Gallaudet