The Journey through Adolescence: Fitting In When We Stand Out
The adventure of adolescence is full of discovery both socially and within ones’ self, and even more so for someone who is deaf/hard of hearing. Adolescents seemingly expend constant energy to become strong, unique individuals while at the same time trying to fit in without standing out.
For young people who are deaf or hard of hearing (DHH), adolescence provides the opportunity for them to own their hearing without it becoming their central identity. People do not want to be defined solely by their audiogram, technology, or by the accommodations they use.
Supporting our youth as whole people who happen to have hearing differences may lead to increased acceptance of self. When a group of teens who are DHH were asked what they would wish for in a perfect world, they did not wish for normal hearing. Instead they wished that “people wouldn’t think of us as impaired or broken”. They wish that people would think of them as a teen first, person with hearing loss second. At the Colorado Hearing Foundation-sponsored Journey Through Adolescence Conference (Children’s Hospital Colorado March 2017), Jonah Berger, therapeutic mentor, stated “…disability should not be in charge, we are in charge…” Adolescents can learn to take charge and become confident with who they are as they choose their path in life.
To support confidence and self-advocacy for teens who are DHH–the strategies below, built around pillars of growth through adolescence, may help them on their journey of self-discovery
- EMPOWER ADVOCACY:
Empower advocacy by teaching adolescents how to become active in their audiology and educational appointments. Glaring at their audiologist or counselor may give them a feeling of control, however, it does not build partnerships. They need to tell these professionals what makes them cringe, what makes them grumpy or frustrated in school, with their technology, or being deaf/hard of hearing. Teens should become the expert about their own hearing. They need to describe what makes them hear better and how they prefer to communicate. Learning the skills of self-advocacy through partnerships will be an invaluable skill as teens mature into fully independent adults.
- OPPORTUNITIES FOR CHOICE:
Advocacy works best when you understand your hearing, your technology and what works well for you. Adolescence is a time for DHH teens to try new technology, strategies and communication styles to have full access to the information that their peers are receiving. Encourage your teen to explore their options. Sometimes the hardest part of making choices is taking the first step to try something new.
- BALANCE INTERDEPENDENCE WITH INDEPENDENCE:
Interdependence is how we rely on each other. Independence is how we rely on ourselves. Healthy interdependence builds the foundation for future independence and should start early. The goals for independence for a teen that is DHH should be the same as for their siblings.
For example, teens should be expected to get up on their own and get ready for school in the morning. DHH teens can use vibrating alarm clocks or other technologies to develop this independence. Staying home alone and knowing what to do in case of an emergency are valuable skills for all teens.
- BEYOND HEARING TECHNOLOGY:
Technology is rapidly advancing and can remove some of the typical and frustrating communication barriers. To stay connected with friends, teens can now access Instant Messaging, texting, social media, real time captioning apps, video relay. Internet safety and supervision is critical and must be taught to all children and youth regardless of their hearing differences. Additional information on cyber safety may be referenced at
- CULTURAL LITERACY:
Teens who are DHH benefit from being informed on current teen culture. Incidental language and learning is rapidly acquired during adolescence through music, movies and TV and are part of the adolescent culture. There are multiple ways for adolescents who are deaf/hard of hearing to connect with the typical adolescent world and be a part of that culture. This might include YouTube, videos, lyrics, technology and interpreters that specialize in signing music and live concerts. Being a part of a team or other activities give the teen another identity besides their hearing.
- SOCIAL COMMUNICATION:
During pre-adolescent years, a variety of skills are developed through play and guided by adults. During these years, parents and teachers often help with miscommunication or clarify missed information. During adolescence, the development of friendships requires more communication skills and less play. Adolescents need to develop the skills to repair communication breakdowns, which include asking for clarification and/or asking for information to be repeated. Adolescents have the responsibility to increase their ability to be better understood, whether that be through spoken language, sign language or both. Multiple opportunities to socialize with friends and family members will increase their confidence and ability to repair communication breakdowns.
As William Shakespeare said, “To thine own self be true…” Often people with hearing loss are not aware of how exhausting good communication can be. When exhaustion happens, it is easier to revert to faking or pretending that we are hearing rather than asking for repetition for the third, fourth or fifth time. Encourage youth to be true to themselves and to the people with whom they are interacting. Responding with “just forget it”, is unfair to all. People with typical hearing do not hear everything and ask for repetitions with confidence. Let teens know that it’s okay to take a break when they are working hard to hear and to let people know that is hard to hear everything that is being said.
Let’s be clear, everyone’s self-esteem is fragile. This fragility is not a flaw to be corrected, it is a human condition to be respected in everyone. Like all adolescents, teens who are DHH struggle with self-esteem and self-identity. Hearing is another facet of self-esteem and self-identity. Teens who are DHH may feel comfortable with people who are hearing, people who are deaf or people who are hard of hearing, depending on the time or the social situation. Make sure they know that they do not need to choose only one group, and that the group is not their self-identity. The development of self-identity is a life-long, fluid process.
- ROLE MODELS:
You can’t be what you can’t see. DHH role models or mentors are the best kept secret but it shouldn’t be that way. If teens, parents or professionals are curious about the possibilities and successes of people who are of hearing in today’s world, then seek out the people that are on that journey. As you and your teen meet people and cultivate stories, keep in mind that your child will have their own unique experiences and journey. For perspectives from teens may be referenced at www.handsandvoices.org/resources/dhh_adults.html
Teasing and bullying will happen whether you are deaf, hard of hearing or if you have typical hearing. Bullies are victims of low self-esteem too. Bullies attack perceived weakness. Help your teen learn a variety of skills to get through all kinds of situations. Kidpower.org is an international organization that provides trainings to increase safety and confidence. Your DHH adolescent can teach the community how they want to be treated, what they need for respect, and what they have to offer. The respect one has for oneself becomes the model for the respect one receives from others.
by Stephanie Olson, Co-Director of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Infusion at Hands & Voices
Lynne Canales, Itinerant Teacher, Englewood Public Schools