Siblings of Children with Hearing Loss

The issue

While much attention is given to many aspects of the development of deaf and hard-of-hearing (DHH) children, little has been given to their siblings. Siblings of children who are DHH develop within the context of the entire family and so they may be impacted by the needs of their DHH sibling and way their family and environment respond to a DHH child. While there is a tendency to view having a sibling with any kind of special needs (including being DHH) as a risk factor, it should not be assumed that the impact on the typically developing sibling is negative.

What we know

There is limited research concerning sibling of DHH children, although these is more concerning the siblings of children with range of special needs, including children who have disabilities or are chronically ill.

Positive outcomes: Siblings of children with special needs can be more caring and compassionate, more sensitive to the needs of others, show greater independence, and be more mature for their age that their peers. For those with DHH siblings who sign, we know exposure to a second language can offer cognitive benefits.

Negative outcomes: Some studies have reported children feeling burdened by their siblings with special needs, are resentful of them and the attention they receive, worry about their sibling, and have increased feelings of self-doubt. Siblings also tend to be aware that they get less attention from their parents, are concerned about the impact that having a child with special needs has on their parents, and often take on more parent-like role toward their sibling. Such children may also be more worried about the future of their siblings with special needs and negative reactions from people towards their sibling may causing annoyance, distress and/or anxiety. Difficulties such as these may stress family relationships and an increased risk of internalizing and externalizing behaviors.

Variable outcomes: Studies have reported different results with regard to siblings’ psychosocial adjustment, prosocial behavior, social competence, self-perception, self-esteem, and self-worth. School performance has also been seen to be variably impacted with some studies reporting similar academic performance to peers, while others found younger siblings were more likely to receive special education services and have more academic difficulties compared to older siblings.

Family dynamics: DHH children and their siblings develop within complex family relationships. Factors that have been associated with differences in relationships between siblings with and without special needs include birth order, number of children, age of children, age difference between children, and family cohesion. A range of parenting styles have been shown to differentially impact on DHH children and their siblings. Authoritarian mothers (demanding, not responsive, expecting obedience) were more verbally and physically hostile to their hearing children compared to their DHH children, while authoritative mothers (demanding but highly responsive, warm, supportive) tended to treat all their children more similarly, regardless of their hearing status.

What we don’t know

There is much we don’t know about the siblings of DHH children. While it is clear that hearing siblings of DHH children may be at risk, it is not clear in which circumstances they are at greater or less risk of having negative developmental outcomes across a range of domains, including psychologically, socially, emotionally, and academically. Therefore, there is no clear pathway for professionals working with DHH children to reliably screen or identify siblings who may be at risk for negative outcomes. Further, there are no evidence-based interventions to support siblings of DHH children, although interventions do exist for siblings of children with other complex needs, such as chronic illness or developmental disability. Another unknown is the longevity of these differences in sibling relationships and outcomes, as research has so far only been conducted with children, not young adults.


Family-centred practices need to consider the whole family, including siblings. Siblings (especially those who attend the same school) can have additional insights that are not known by parents. Professionals should keep in mind the importance of siblings as both part of the family fabric and as individuals in their own right. Siblings have unique roles within their families and their needs and perspectives deserve attention, not only for as a means for working towards successful outcomes for the DHH child. Siblings of DHH children are vulnerable to negative outcomes in some circumstances; therefore, professionals must understand the range of emotions and experiences which siblings may feel, be alert to the impact this may have on their development and outcomes, and be ready to address these issues when they are identified.

Posted on Oct. 10, 2017 by
Kathryn Crowe
Center for Education Research Partnerships
Rochester Institute of Technology and
School of Teacher Education
Charles Sturt University, Australia
kccerp {at}

Sharynne McLeod
School of Teacher Education
Charles Sturt University, Australia
smcleod {at}

Jacqueline Barr
Glenray Industries, Australia
Jacqui {at}


Further reading

Antonopoulou, K., Hadjikakou, K., Stampoltzis, A., & Nicolaou, N. (2012). Parenting styles of mothers with deaf or hard-of-hearing children and hearing siblings. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 17, 306-318. view details

Lobato, D. J., & Kao, B. T. (2005). Brief report: Family-based group intervention for young siblings of children with chronic illness and developmental disability. Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 30, 678-682. view details

Marschark, M. (2018). Raising and educating a deaf child (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.view details

Vermaes, I. P. R., van Susante, A. M. J., & van Bakel, H. J. A. (2012). Psychological functioning of siblings in families of children with chronic health conditions: A meta-analysis. Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 37, 166-184. view details

Woolfe, T., Want, S. C., & Siegal, M. (2003). Siblings and theory of mind in deaf native signing children. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 8, 340-347. view details