Deaf children’s emotional development differs from that of hearing children

If you ask 12-year-old deaf children what ‘surprised’ or ‘curious’ means, two-thirds of them are unable to indicate under what circumstances a person would experience such an emotion. They are equally unable to describe these emotions. Most of their hearing peers, on the other hand, are able to do so. Developmental psychologist Carolien Rieffe delivered her inaugural lecture on 1 November 2010 on emotional development.

At the root of the atypical emotional development of deaf children lies a language problem. But the issue is more complex. Deaf children clearly exhibit different emotional development from hearing children. Language is not the only central factor in emotional development, as Leiden developmental psychologist Carolien Rieffe discovered. For the last ten years, Rieffe has been conducting research into the emotional development of deaf children, comparing their hearing to that of their hearing peers. 

Carolien Rieffe’s inaugural lecture on 1 November 2010
Rieffe delivered her inaugural lecture at Leiden University on 1 November. She is professor extraordinary in Social and Emotional Development of Children with Auditory and/or Communicative Limitations, occupying an endowed chair of the Netherlands Association for Deaf and Hearing-Impaired Children.

Emotional development

Are emotions innate, and are we therefore victims of our own emotions? No, says Rieffe, quite the contrary. A baby is already able to regulate his or her emotions. Crying harder means more attention from the mother, but anger means more distance. How can you serve two interests at the same time? This kind of development calls for a lot of input and guidance from the social environment. The process is known as emotion socialisation.

How do I maintain a good relationship?
Deaf children who grow up in a hearing family can recognize their own emotions and make them known to others. But in doing so, they are less concerned with the effect this might have on the other person: how do I resolve this, and how do I maintain a good relationship with this person? These children seem to react in a less strategic manner. Or is it maybe the case that they use a different strategy, to which the hearing environment responds negatively?

Angry and sad for a longer period of time
In addition, recent research has shown that deaf children have more trouble than hearing children in dealing with their negative emotions. They tend to be angry and sad for longer periods of time. Rieffe is currently investigating the effect of this on psychopathology and social problems. Such problems arise more often in deaf children than in their hearing peers. This in turn sheds new light on the role of the environment in the emotional development of a child.

New research

Nowadays, 95% of deaf children in the Netherlands who have no additional problems are given a cochlear implant (CI). This surgically implanted prosthesis transforms sound into electric impulses which directly stimulate the auditory nerve. Parents systematically report that the CI has improved the quality of life of their deaf children. Research, on the other hand, shows that the behavioural and emotional problems of these children are still more severe than those of their hearing peers. How can this be? Time for new research into this phenomenon.

Testing emotional development
In her inaugural lecture, Rieffe also presents a number of preliminary results of four years of research conducted in collaboration with Professor Johan Frijns, from the Otolaryngology Department at the LUMC, into the emotional development of this new population of children. With her research group, she developed a test to map the emotional development over a longer period of time of all children with communicative disorders. This includes

  • Children with a cochlear implant 
  • Children with severe speech disorders
  • Children with autism spectrum disorder

Measuring means knowing

Rieffe focuses on the youngest group, children between the ages of 1 and 6: ‘After all, if we want to be able to apply preventive measures, we need to carry out interventions as early as possible. But first we have to map which aspects of emotional functioning contribute to a healthy development for this group, and which aspects on the contrary present a risk.’


More about Psychology in Leiden

(29 October 2010)

Last Modified: 22-11-2010