you can't be afraid of people just because they look different
September 4, 2011 8:47 PM   Subscribe

My 7-year old daughter is afraid of a child with a facial deformity at her school. Does anyone have suggestions for helping us overcome this?

There is a younger boy at her school with pretty severe facial deformity (I haven't seen him but my husband has and says it is pretty bad). He's not in my daughter's class but he is in her day-care.

The problem is that she is afraid of him! She is very easily scared of things, especially creepy pictures of people (for example she wouldn't walk into a room that contained a drawing of a person with 4 eyes). She's afraid of looking at this boy and she's started wanting to avoid things where he might be, like a school play. She knows she's wrong to be afraid but keeps asking to stay home from these things so she won't have to see him.
I am trying to let her know that it's ok if she doesn't want to play with him, but it's not ok avoid him (and activities she likes!) because she is scared. Maybe we should force her to talk to him and see he's just like everyone else? If it's anything like previous things she's been afraid of, she will freak out and cry.
I am also trying not to make her feel too guilty about being scared, since she can't control her feelings.

Any recommendations on how to approach this? Books or movies about the topic? I brought up Disney's "Hunchback of Notre Dame" - she's seen it already and she seems to understand the lesson (everyone was afraid of Quasimodo because he looked different, but he was really a great person and saved the day!), but it doesn't help get rid of her fear.

While writing this out I realized I don't know how other kids at school respond to him...My daughter hasn't mentioned anyone making fun of him or bullying. I don't think this is something picked up from her peers, just a visceral scared reaction.
posted by astrid to Human Relations (35 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
When I was a little older than your daughter (10), I developed a phobia related to food/eating. The reaction of my parents was to literally FORCE me to eat, physically, when I didn't want to. I developed a full-blown anxiety disorder and for several years after my weight bottomed out at less than 80 lbs (at 5'2). I don't know if that phobia was the beginning of the anxiety disorder that would have happened anyway, or if the full anxiety disorder was touched off by my parents' reaction to that phobia, but the end result was the same.

Now, I don't know that your daughter will eventually/has the potential to develop a full anxiety disorder later in life, but just in case, I would strongly caution you against forcing her to talk to him. Yes, this is something important to deal with and resolve, but I think forcing could make thinks a lot worse.

I think you should bring her to a counselor and have her and the counselor, together, figure out ways that she can overcome her fear of this boy's appearance. I think it will be best if it happens slowly in a way that's controlled by her.
posted by Ashley801 at 8:53 PM on September 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure if the "he's a nice kid just like you, his face doesn't matter" stuff will help much, if the problem is that she's scared. It doesn't sound so much like it matters to her that he's different, so much as the fact that he just looks an unexpected way. Young children have a tremendous capacity for empathy--being frightened is another thing entirely.

So I would try to get technical. What is the nature of the deformity? Do you know? Perhaps if your husband described it here, we could take some guesses.

If it's something like a hemangioma, you can explain to your daughter that it's just a place where the skin grew bigger and turned a different color, and that skin isn't scary at all. His just happens to look different. If it's something like a cleft palate, you can have her feel the bones and skin on her own face, and explain that his is just like hers, only his didn't grow together right when he was a baby. And so on. Maybe if she understands the "why" (in a more specific way than "that's just how god made him" or whatever), she'll be able to accept it or at least tolerate it more.

You could also go the route of telling her that he's probably scared, too. Assuming this boy lives in a first world country, I'm sure he's had countless surgeries already in his short life, with many more to come. She has to be brave when she sees him because he has to be brave when he gets surgeries. Or something along those lines. Just a thought.
posted by phunniemee at 9:04 PM on September 4, 2011 [19 favorites]

Assuming this boy lives in a first world country
Yeah, just to clarify, we're in America.

The counselor idea is good, as well as figuring out a technical way to explain his differences, thanks for the answers so far!
posted by astrid at 9:19 PM on September 4, 2011

A child in my third-grader's class has a serious medical condition that causes him some fairly minor, but definitely noticeable deformity. During the first week of school (which he missed due to his condition), a child-life specialist from the local children's hospital came and talked to the class about his illness, what kind of effects it has on him and why it causes his face to look the way it does. We're already friends with his family and my kid knew the basics already, but she learned quite a bit more about what he has to deal with with his condition. I think it may have helped some of the kids develop some empathy and see him more as their classmate who is going through a rough time with instead of 'that weird looking kid who misses a lot of school.'

Obviously that isn't something you can set up yourself, but if you know what kind of condition he has, learning about the medical details may help her understand why he looks like that and how it affects him. That might go a long way toward humanizing him and making her feel more comfortable that he really is just a regular kid and that there's no more reason to be afraid of him than of any other kid.
posted by Dojie at 9:31 PM on September 4, 2011 [4 favorites]

Possibly look for books or movies that feature children with deformities of some kind?
Mask comes to mind, but it may be a little old for her. There are likely documentaries out there about kids with cleft palates, and there are many shows and movies showing people with Down's Syndrome, also.

Forcing her to spend time with him will likely not work. It is very hard to overcome the freak-out-and-cry reaction. What may help is to help her spend time in closer and closer vicinity to him and a very gradual acclimation.

FWIW, my daughter had hysterical fear of anyone in costume or beard until she was about 6 years old. Mickey Mouse, Santa Claus (even her father dressed up as Santa) Chuckie Cheese, and sadly, her wonderful bearded Uncle Yendor. Time healed all terrors eventually. Uncle Y worked hard to win her over, but never pushed. We helped by acknowledging her fear and his beard and calling him Uncle Fuzzy for a while. Usually, he would visit for a week and she would be scared for the first 5 days, fine for the last 2, and then we would start all over again at the next visit.
Mostly though, it is something she just grew out of.

Best of luck with your little girl, and kudos to you for helping build a friendly caring community for the little boy.
posted by SLC Mom at 9:34 PM on September 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

She knows she's wrong to be afraid but keeps asking to stay home from these things so she won't have to see him...I am also trying not to make her feel too guilty about being scared, since she can't control her feelings.

These seem like they might be in contradiction, to an outside observer. In what sense is she wrong to be afraid?

Maybe it's alright for her to be afraid? Not in the sense that it's something you should encourage, or enable. But maybe there's a way to be supportive while tabling the question of whether or not she ought to be afraid for the time being. Maybe remind her that if he's also at a school play, she can just look away.

Exposure to the less scary end of the spectrum of scary things is more likely to enhance her tolerance, but that should really only come naturally in the course of life. Throwing her into the deep end by forcing her to be with him in person is not a good idea, IMO. My intuition says that she would benefit most from supportiveness that is not burdened by the expectation that she'll get over her fear simply because you perceive it as a problem; so maybe talk to her and point out how this fear is preventing her from doing things she would like otherwise, and allow her to decide what to do with that.
posted by clockzero at 9:45 PM on September 4, 2011

Have a little chat with her - tell her what is going on, why does he look like that and what can she do about it.

A proper talk with a child can change the way how they act. Be calm and understanding because kids feel what state you're in so if you're too serious, she's going to panic.
posted by Johnkx at 9:53 PM on September 4, 2011

First of all, I think it can be very difficult for children to extrapolate lessons from television and movies and apply them to real life. When I was a babysitter, the little girls I watched would go right from watching Barney to fighting over a doll -- they didn't exactly pick up on the sharing lessons, even though they could sing along with all the sharing songs.

One of the most important things is to comfort her in her fear. Don't make her feel like a bad kid for being afraid -- it's really normal, and even as an adult I have those automatic pangs of fear when I see someone who is badly disfigured. Teach her that even though she is afraid, and that's okay, she still needs to be kind to him when she does have to interact with him. Ask her to imagine how she would like her to be treated if she got hurt and had a big mark on her face -- obviously not in a cruel 'how would you like it?!' way, but just to strike up a conversation. As a matter of fact, ask her lots of questions about the situation, like: How do you feel when you see him? How do you think it feels to look different? Do you ever feel different from the other kids? etc. In some ways, this situation is actually a great opportunity to open up a new level of conversations with your child.
posted by imalaowai at 9:54 PM on September 4, 2011

>>She knows she's wrong to be afraid but keeps asking to stay home from these things so she won't have to see him...I am also trying not to make her feel too guilty about being scared, since she can't control her feelings.

>These seem like they might be in contradiction, to an outside observer. In what sense is she wrong to be afraid?

Yeah, I meant more that she knows "I'm afraid I might see that kid" is not a good enough reason to stay home from (watching) a school play. But I don't want to guilt her with the "how would you like it?!" stuff that imalaowai mentioned.
posted by astrid at 10:01 PM on September 4, 2011

She's probably too young to see the whole thing, but perhaps parts of John Merrick's story, The Elephant Man, might help? I don't know if there is a child-friendly adaptation of his story.

Also, talk to her -- what does she think the boy is going to do, or what are the "ugly" faces going to do to her in her imagination? What would happen if she had to see the face, does she get nightmares from them?
posted by benzenedream at 10:06 PM on September 4, 2011

I have a 7-year old son, and I thought of what I would do with him under similar circumstances.

I don't think words per se are enough to break through the mental process of someone at that age, where feeling is so much stronger than thinking. I think you need something more visceral.

How about breaking through her hang-up by painting her own face with different designs? You could start innocuously with stars or hearts or whatever, but then try painting, say, an un-threatening eye on her cheek. She how she reacts. If she's OK push it a little further. Paint something that she might think is disturbing but with a little encouragement can see is just a design created with paint.

This might help break the link in her mind between appearance and reality. The next time she sees the scary-looking little boy (and boy does my heart go out to him and his parents!), she might think back to how her own face looked different, and realize on a non-verbal level that she doesn't need to be scared.
posted by zachawry at 10:12 PM on September 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

Talk to the teacher and/or school counselor. I bet they were briefed by the parent about what to do in this sort of situation (I was) and even if they weren't, I bet the counselor knows this could be an issue and wants to help.

FWIW, in my hs classrooms with disabled students, I learned that the more "normal" appearing kids' discomfort really was based in unanswered questions about their classmate and giving them a chance to ask an adult 'what's going on? How am I supposed to act? I feel uncomfortable because...' helped immensely. They knew to be polite/not stare/not make fun of but didn't know what to expect. I don't know if this would be the case with a younger child... the school counselor would know, though.
posted by adorap0621 at 10:28 PM on September 4, 2011 [3 favorites]

Yeah, I meant more that she knows "I'm afraid I might see that kid" is not a good enough reason to stay home from (watching) a school play.

Well, good enough implies a value judgment, and I'm not sure in what sense you mean that. If it's not a good enough reason, does that mean that she must go anyway? It seems that you're not inclined to make her go anyway, but is she also on-board with the idea that her fear is a problem that needs to be fixed? If she is, that should make it a lot easier to deal with. If she's not, then maybe you should start there and see how she responds: ask her if she wants help getting past this issue, perhaps?
posted by clockzero at 10:29 PM on September 4, 2011

When I was about your daughter's age, there was an older boy at my school whose skin was covered in greyish-green scales. Looking back, I think he must have had some form of ichthyosis. At the time, though, this was completely outside my experience, and I could only think that he must be some kind of monster. I was deeply shaken whenever I happened to see him.

What would have helped me most would have been for someone to explain exactly why the boy looked that way -- the mechanism of the disease and what caused it (maybe emphasising that it wasn't contagious). Some of that would probably have been over my head, but it would have least helped me to place the boy within the realm of normal experience.

I hope that makes sense.
posted by Perodicticus potto at 12:38 AM on September 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Ask her how much courage that young boy must have to go to school to face children like her everyday. How can she make him feel better?
In other words, turn it around so she empathizes and identifies with him.
posted by artdrectr at 1:07 AM on September 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

I really feel for everyone involved here. Your daughter and the other kids at school are all probably struggling with a very basic feeling of "What is that and can I catch it and will he hurt me because his face scares me," etc. Y'know, you spend 7 years of your life with people who all kinda look alike and then BAM, there's this intense new type of face and nobody is explaining to you what the heck it is. Of course she's anxious.

I would think that your daughter is undoubtedly not the only kid who has this reaction.

Years ago, when I was an elementary sped teacher one of my students began having psychotic episodes and performing very disturbing acts in front of the class. We were all fixed on getting him help. A few weeks into it, I got a phone call from another kid's parent to tell us that her daughter was afraid to come to class because of what this boy might do, and that's when I realized that we needed to sit all the kids down (without the boy in the room) and explain in very basic scientific terms what was going on.

So what I suggest is approaching this the same way. I'd speak to the school and ask if they'd be willing to have someone come in and talk to the kids about this boy's issue. Just understanding that he looks a certain way because X happened (or whatever) will help. They should be allowed to ask questions because kids at this age are empathetic and want to be nice, but this kid's face is just way too out there for them to comprehend.

There's something about having all the kids together that gives them strength, because for sure they're probably all freaked out by this kid's face. And when they all have a better understanding of what it is, they'll feel more comfortable.
posted by kinetic at 4:37 AM on September 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

I just want to come in and maybe reduce expectations a tiny bit about the education side of things. I have a noticeable facial difference (port wine stain on the left side of my face, including hypertrophy of my upper lip and screwed up teeth on that side) and I was scared of kids who looked different, when I was that age. I knew all kinds of science stuff, I knew in as thorough a way as possible that "looking different" does not equal bad, evil, mean, strange, etc. And it didn't really help. Growing up helped, as did constantly seeing folks with facial differences.

I have to say, though, that your daughter does seem to be at a point where her fear reactions are holding her back from things she'd like to do. Counseling to figure out ways of dealing with your fear without letting it rule you might be in order.
posted by SMPA at 4:55 AM on September 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

Maybe we should force her to talk to him and see he's just like everyone else? If it's anything like previous things she's been afraid of, she will freak out and cry.

This sounds like it would be highly traumatizing for the other child, too.
posted by thejoshu at 5:08 AM on September 5, 2011 [12 favorites]

I remember when I was elementrary school, there was a new kid that was a burn victim. A lot of people were afraid of him because they didn't understand WHY he looked that way except for the rumours that they heard. I tried not to be afraid of him as a kid, but I remained afraid because he was a few grades older than me and seemed dangerous because of certain rumours (relating to his actions) that existed. I think you need to figure out why your daughter is scared of him physically, then explain to your daughter what caused him to look a certain way, and further explain that someone's looks do not make them a good or bad person. I would actually show her images of people that have been judged by others for their looks, this can include the elephant man and some cartoons of people too. I think Dr. Seuss probably has a book about diversity and accepting others for their differences. Ask your daughter again why she is afraid of him so that you can help to provide different answers if necessary. Tell your daughter that it's okay for her to be honest by sharing why she is scared.

I highly disagree with the idea of having a guidance counselor or teacher talk about the kid's appearance in front of the class. It seems like the other kids are not afraid of him and if that's the case, then this is something that your daughter needs to work through on her own. I think it would be truly mortifying for a kid's appearance to be talked about in front of an entire classroom. Don't force your child to talk to the kid unless she wants to, but maybe you can talk about him in a positive way at home? This will help her become more familiar with him and perhaps give her the strength to speak to him later on.
posted by sincerely-s at 5:40 AM on September 5, 2011

This experience might be useful as a teaching point about courage in general.

"You know, honey, bravery isn't about not being scared. It's about being scared and doing what you're scared of anyway. It's okay to be scared. There are things I'm scared of too. But I don't let the scary stuff win. I close my eyes, I take a deep breath, and I think about being brave. You know that boy isn't really bad, right? I understand that you're scared. Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and think about being brave."
posted by Etrigan at 5:47 AM on September 5, 2011

Talk to her about it over several discussions. I'd tell her that it's not wrong to be afraid; it's natural. That behind the unusual face, there's a person who is just as likely to be nice/mean, stupid/smart, funny/not-funny, etc. Explain that the child's face is due to the way his body grew, and that she can't catch it. Ask her to talk about what scares her, and just listen. Don't contradict or explain, let her describe what scares her. Than talk to her about how she might be able to overcome her fear.

Ask her to make a list of the ways in which the child is similar to her. Likes snacks time, likes the slide, has hands, legs, arms, etc., like everyone else. In my experience, people overcome fear of the unknown or different by acclimating to it.

I'd ask the child care to work out a plan, as described above; this situation isn't fair to either child, and other kids may feel the same fear.
posted by theora55 at 6:09 AM on September 5, 2011

It's possible that she just doesn't want to be there in general, and that this is the most convenient excuse to present itself so far.
posted by hermitosis at 7:17 AM on September 5, 2011

Issuing the disclaimer that I am not a parent, teacher, or child psychologist --

You know, people have suggested the whole "give an explanation for what's up with him," and that sounds right. If you think about it, seven-year-olds are just BARELY past the "blurt out every question you have about people who are different while they're standing there" phase -- and, well, the biggest thing we do when very little kids blurt out "mommy, what's happening with that boy's face??" is to shush them. We do explain what's going on later and try to explain why blurting that kind of thing out that nakedly isn't quite the done thing.

But I wonder how much of the nuances of that sink in with kids; maybe she's processed all of that as, "I still have questions about that kid, but I'm not supposed to ask them, and not knowing what's going on is scary."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:37 AM on September 5, 2011

I hate to suggest a movie or television, but I think there are probably some great age-appropriate options similar to Mask, mentioned above.

The point is to get her to connect with empathy over fear, and there's nothing like some Hollywood schmaltz in order to get that done.
posted by cior at 9:05 AM on September 5, 2011

IHMMCM (I have many, many congenital malformities), including a cleft lip (long repaired, not so dramatic-looking), a cleft palate, missing fingers, missing toes(!), and a prosthetic leg.

One movie suggestion (watch all or part with her, but it's worth watching for grownups, too), is Smile Pinki, a documentary put out by the Smile Train. Though it is essentially an advertisement for their work, one can forgive them for a little self-promotion. It has some pretty darn scary facial clefts in it--I myself find them freaky to look at--but they're attached to cute, sweet, innocent little babies. Maybe get your husband to ID what sort of cleft the kid in school has, find a kid in the movie who has one kind of like his, and go from there.

That said--and I absolutely, totally applaud your reasoned approach to this--let me inject a little bit of personal experience that is NOT a comment on what your daughter is feeling right now. It's more of something to shoot for. I started school at 3, so by age 7 had already been in school (camp, etc.) for 4 years. Based on my own observations of my own classmates and peers, 3 and 4 are too young to "know better," but ages 6 and 7, not to mention beyond, are definitely old enough to be accepting, polite, and open, even with the understandable ewww factor. So once she gets over her fears, hopefully soon she'll be educating the other kids about how little Johnny was just born that way, it doesn't hurt, he can play too, etc., etc. This is in no way directed at you personally, quite the contrary! But although no one wants to return to the "don't ask, don't stare, don't mention it" 1980s, a certain level of politeness is still indicated, no matter how freely a child is encouraged to express his feelings in private.
posted by skbw at 2:03 PM on September 5, 2011

Unfortunately, The Story of Thumper the Cleft-Affected Bunny was not around when I was a kid, and it's probably too young for her, but a copy might make a nice gift to the younger kids' classroom. Just as long as the kids know that "harelip" is a bad word! Fortunately, that one you don't hear so much anymore.
posted by skbw at 2:14 PM on September 5, 2011

Maybe you could try to help her understand how the boy must be feeling. How he must be scared to be one of the younger kids, and to stand out, and to probably deal with some teasing. If he's a nice kid, there should be no problem with her learning how to empathize with him.
posted by DeltaForce at 7:49 PM on September 5, 2011

Is there a way to get a photo of him that she can look at while at home? Maybe part of the problem is that she's uncomfortable looking at him while he can also see her or talk to her. Maybe if she had a chance to get used to his face without being watched, she'd eventually be desensitized to it?
posted by pseudostrabismus at 8:35 PM on September 5, 2011

I second SMPA here, as someone who developed an extreme deformity phobia at an early age...counseling and time. Under no circumstances have her watch The Elephant mother did precisely this in an attempt to be helpful, and I actually vomited from fear, and had nightmares for close to a decade...talking about this is certainly helpful, but be careful trying impromptu aversion therapy.
posted by StrikeTheViol at 9:23 PM on September 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Does she actually know why the boy is like this?

Maybe if you sat her down, or got a teacher/doctor/counselor to sit her down and explain in as much detail as she wants what is "wrong" with the boy. Why he is like he is? What is being done to help him? That its not contagious, its just a sick boy.

The important part is as much detail as she wants, no question she asks is silly, just try and give her as much honest information as you can so that she can come to understand more about the boy and why he's like that. There are lots of good kids stories on these sort of themes too of people being picked on because of how they look and the heroine seeing through to the person underneath, if you do bedtime stories together it might be a good way to get a conversation going. She needs to fully understand it as much as possible. Things you understand are a lot less scary.
posted by wwax at 7:18 AM on September 6, 2011

You guys! We had a breakthrough! After school she told me that she went and talked to the boy on her own! She asked his name and was nice to him. I'm so proud of her!
I asked her what made her decide to talk to him and she said she felt sad for him and thought he felt sad. I'm not sure what exactly changed her mind but I'm not going to push it.

Thank you everyone who gave helpful advice and personal stories! (We put in a form to see a school counselor but they haven't gotten back to us, and the teacher says she'll send home a pamphlet or something describing the boy's condition.) We've been talking to our daughter at home about it every time she brings it up, trying to emphasize the medical reasons for his differences, that it's ok to feel scared, but she has to still treat him like a person, like she does all the other kids, he must be brave to come to school when he's afraid, etc. And when she feels scared feelings, to try to think about the things we talked about at home. Some of that must have sunk into her brain :)
I expect we might have setbacks in the days ahead (I don't expect her to be totally over her fear in just one day), but I'm going to mark this as resolved.
posted by astrid at 8:21 AM on September 9, 2011 [7 favorites]

Aw, that is so sweet. Little kids are awesome.
posted by phunniemee at 8:26 AM on September 9, 2011

Good for her!
posted by skbw at 1:33 PM on September 9, 2011

that is very touching! good for her!
posted by custard heart at 12:58 PM on September 12, 2011

As someone with a spinal deformity, I'm glad she was able to face her fear. It's breathtakingly awful to be stared at and whispered about when you're a kid and it's made me a socially awkward and insecure adult.

The thing that always, always worked was telling kids "God made me this way" (even though I don't believe in God). Since people who believe in God believe that he's infallible, therefore I can't be a mistake. I'm sure I've pissed off some atheist parents but oh well.

If you're an atheist, just leave out the God part and explain that everyone is born different, just like you have blue eyes and she has brown eyes or daddy is tall and mommy is short. It's not bad that mommy has different eyes than she does, right? So it's not bad that Bobby was born different.

Also, she doesn't have to be this kid's best friend, but it meant the world to me when other kids stood up for me against bullies. This kid is 100% guaranteed to face some, and it's so good to have an ally.
posted by desjardins at 10:18 AM on September 13, 2011

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