Expressions of Trauma from Deaf Children

female latin child studying on desk asking for help in stress with a tired face expression

Speaking with a friend recently who works at a school for the deaf, she shared her observations about how the students in her school behave as a probable result of their unresolved trauma. Over the years I have shared with her information about the nature of trauma and listening to her, she clearly has absorbed much of this information.

I found it interesting when she said that deafness itself is not traumatizing for a child if the family is relatively healthy and supportive. While there are some stable, healthy, intact families in the neighborhood where the school is located, poverty, divorce, domestic violence, a single parent in the home drug addiction and alcoholism are rampant. Many have no stable home life, being shipped from family member to family member. She said that many families struggle to accept their child’s deafness, seeing it as almost a shameful condition. As a result, many of the children are neglected and/or abused.

Reflective of their life experiences and underlying unresolved trauma, she described how the younger children often won’t get off the bus, and when they do, they often need to be carried out where they then lay on the cement outside the school for up to a half hour, refusing to get up even in the bitter cold, remaining immovable short of being physically carried into the school.

Cute kid sleeping on old books.

She said that some come in and sleep for several hours before being able to engage in school work. She noted that parents never tell the story of what has gone on that morning, do not share when children go to bed, what’s in their room, TV, video phone, or cell phones. She says many children live their lives on their devices, staying up until all hours, and come to school exhausted.

She talked about the pervasive anger of some of these students, coupled with times of deep dissociation in which children showed little affect. She observed how parents make little or no eye contact with their children as they drop them off to school; they are on their phones and seem completely oblivious of what is going on for their children. She then reminisced and contrasted herself as child, walking to school with her mom who would ask her what was going to happen during the day, what things she might need or want to do, and even engaged in play, doing things like counting the number of buses or reading signs. The contrast of her early experiences of being spoken to and invited to observe the world around her are clearly not a part of the lives of the children she sees at her school.

Sad little african american kid, troubled

She discussed the concept of language deprivation being a form of child abuse, in her eyes. She said that lack of language interferes with gaining life skills and abilities to connect. She noted that it is extra hard for parents of these children who have to learn sign language, requiring a big investment in connecting with their child and promoting relational interactions.

She talked about how many children refuse to leave the classroom at the end of the day and how there is a protocol for getting kids on the bus. Sometimes it’s so bad that the school has to call parents to come get their children because they won’t let anyone put them on a bus.

She then told a story of a child whose house had burned down several months ago. She noted that this child seemed to manage all the stresses this caused without any big interference with her ability to function in school. She said the family made sure she was able to come to school every day and in general they kept her routines in place. She stressed that consistency in this child’s life contributed to how well she managed the loss of her home. The family stayed connected as it went from shelter to shelter over the next several months. All this helped this child remain calm, stable and able to learn. She stressed that it is not the traumatic events that deeply impact the child’s abilities to engage in school, it is how their world treats them to the degrees to which they maintain stability, routine and connection.

mom is tired, depressed with small boys.

She referred to the trauma of having a child who is not perfect, and how much worse if the parents themselves have their own trauma history. She noted that the divorce rate of parents with disabled children— which, she emphasized is not a term used in the deaf community— was off the charts. She talked about how these children grow up with a disability label placed on them by the outside world that becomes something they embrace about themselves.

To conclude, I noted my friend’s compassion towards these children, her deep desire to promote a world of safety for them when they are at school, and to give them structure and routine that allows them to have one safe place in their world. I was very impressed by all the ways she was gently nurturing these wounded children, and understood and accepted them, regardless of the ways they expressed their trauma.

Invitation for Reflection

  1. What have you believed is true about deaf children, especially those who experience trauma? How does this information impact those beliefs?
  2. How did you feel as you read how a trauma-impacted deaf child responds to unresolved trauma? What do you wish the world was like for them?
  3. Is there anything you might be able to do to promote greater awareness of the special needs these children have?

Diane Wagenhals, Program Director, Lakeside Global Institute