Strong, resilient brains help children as they handle school, their communities, their homes, and as they become adults. When we are born, we inherit genes from our parents that may seem to predetermine our potential. The ‘nature versus nurture’ debate has been ongoing since 1869 when Francis Galton first coined the term.
Are our genes fixed at birth (nature) or does the environment in which we grow up (nurture) determine our outcomes? Research, in the area of epigenetics, is showing that a combination of the two is responsible for how our genes express themselves and ultimately our behaviors and outcomes.
How does gene expression work?
Children have approximately 23,000 genes at birth. These genes interact in many known and yet unknown ways to determine our physical traits, personality, health, and potentials in many areas.
In terms of demonstrable changes, a simple gene expression can be very noticeable in the life of a child. A change in gene expression can decrease the release of stress toxins that have the potential to lead to health problems. Thereby helping children have the resilience to handle future adversity. It can positively alter how a child learns new information in the future.
Negative experiences can also change how a gene is expressed
How? Well, negative experiences change the chemicals and proteins released in a child’s body and the brain’s response to perceived danger, which can lead to changes in gene expression. One common classification of negative experiences for children that is often described in the research literature is Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). These ACEs include but are not limited to neglect, social isolation, daily stress and bullying.
What about children with hearing loss?
Hearing loss itself is not an adverse childhood experience. However, hearing loss may put a child at increased risk of adverse childhood experiences.
For example, Winston and Chicot reported the results of a 2012 study by the Essential Parent Company that showed that approximately 80% of new parents reported feeling unprepared and anxious with their newborn. For parents with a newborn identified with hearing loss, in addition to having a new infant, they are quickly learning about hearing loss, having multiple appointments, feeling the pressure to meet critical windows for listening and language development, and may not know how to communicate with their baby (Young and Tattersal, 2007). These parents are likely to feel more stress and anxiety which may be passed on to the infant.
Some daily family routines can also be stressful for a child with hearing loss if they are particularly acoustically challenging. For example, dinner table discussions with multiple family members talking over one another can be too difficult for the child to follow. When the child cannot keep up with the conversation, he or she might withdraw from these bonding opportunities and feel socially isolated.
At school, a child might withdraw during group classroom activities and feel isolated from peers if classroom acoustics are poor (e.g., loud air conditioning unit). Or if the child does try to participate and modifications are not made, struggling to comprehend could be a daily stressor.
Good news – responsive relationships can help!
Raby and colleagues (2012) found that even children genetically predisposed to more stress were able to handle stressful situations better when they had strong attachments with a parent than children without strong attachments. It is also known that responsive relationships give children confidence, higher self-esteem and a sense of well-being (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2004).
Here are 5 tips to empower parents to help their children with hearing loss foster responsive relationships and positively impact the experiences they have early in life.
1. Encourage lots of natural interactions – Back and forth exchanges (sometimes called “serve and returns”) are easy to do and are the foundation for responsive relationships. Encourage parents to look for communication efforts from the child and provide an appropriate response back. It can be as simple as smiling in response to their baby cooing.
2. Ensure well-fit hearing technology every waking hour – By giving their child access to sound the entire day, nurturing conversations and interactions can be enjoyed at all times. This will support them in growing their important relationships.
3. Use remote microphone system (RMS) technology when in noise/over distance – When the listening situation is noisy or when distance is a factor, RMS can help ensure their child will not feel the ‘dinner table syndrome’.
4. Make environmental modifications – By being vigilant and making environmental modifications, like closing windows and turning off the radio, their child will be able to hear more of what loved ones are saying.
5. Teach their child self-advocacy skills – Teaching their child to speak up for themselves is a life-long skill that will allow them to be an active participant. For example, by feeling confident enough to tell the teacher that the air conditioning unit beside them is too loud, modifications can be made so the child can enjoy nurturing conversations with the teacher and peers.
To learn more about how your families can promote responsive relationships in the early years, I invite to read and share this article by the Center of Developing Child at Harvard University.
Ennis, C. & Pugh, O. (2017). Introducing epigenetics: a graphic guide. Icon Books.
National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2004). Young children develop in an environment of relationships: Working paper No. 1. Retrieved from www.developingchild.harvard.edu.
Raby, K.L., Cicchetti, D., Carlson, E. A., Cutuli, J. J., Englund, M. M. & Egeland, B. (2012). Genetic and caregiving-based contributions to infant attachment: Unique associations with distress reactivity and attachment security. Psychological Science, 23 (9), 1016-1023.
Winston, R. & Chicot, R. (2016) The importance of early bonding on the long-term mental health and resilience of children. London Journal of Primary Care, 8 (1), 12–14.
Young, A., & Tattersall, H. (2007). Universal newborn hearing screening and early identification of deafness: Parents’ responses to knowing early and their expectations of child communication development. The Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 12 (2): 209-220.