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Facial Difference: Confronting the Challenges of Bullying

What is a facial difference?

A child with a facial difference has a face that looks different. This may be because of a condition they were born with or because of an accident, illness, or surgery that happened later in life. A facial difference may affect the way a child speaks. It may also affect learning, behavior, and social abilities.

Children with facial differences often face challenges because of the way they look or because of other differences. Sometimes, these challenges involve negative reactions from other children and adults. These pages give advice and tips to parents on how they can help their child confront these challenges allowing them to get on with their lives.

People are curious about facial differences

Everyone is curious about facial differences. It is normal for children and other people to notice and ask questions about them. Most of the time, the looks and the questions are not meant to hurt the child. But sometimes questions, comments, and long stares are mean-spirited and harmful.  Although almost all children will experience these behaviours at least once in their lives, children with facial differences may be more likely to experience taunting and other forms of bullying than their peers.

People often make assumptions about children with facial differences

Some adults and children may think because a child has a facial difference, they are also developmentally impaired in some way. While sometimes this is true, many children with facial differences and other related problems do not have developmental challenges. Some parents may have to convince schools that this is the case.

Teasing and bullying

It is important to be able to identify teasing and bullying and learn strategies to help your child deal with these behaviors.

Teasing occurs when two people playfully poke fun at each other and neither person feels hurt. Everyone may have a good laugh, but teasing is all in fun. Most importantly, playful teasing is not directed at someone’s difference, such as religion, ethnicity, speech or appearance.

Bullying is intentional. This means that the bully hurts the other person’s feelings on purpose. Bullying also involves an imbalance of power, like an older child bullying a younger one. Bullying is an aggressive and negative behaviour that can happen over and over. Bullying can have long-term effects such as low self-esteem, avoiding school, and anxiety or depression.

Examples of bullying include:

Taunting

Taunting occurs when a person makes fun of someone else with the intention of hurting their feelings. Sometimes taunting can be confused with teasing but it is not the same. Taunting is done to provoke a negative reaction from your child, such as turning red or looking sad, teary, embarrassed or scared. Taunting can come in many forms. For example, if someone asks, “Why do you talk/look like that?” over and over, even after they have received an answer, it is a form of taunting. The question is not being asked because the person is curious. Another example of taunting is drawing attention to a child’s facial difference by calling the child hurtful names.

Staring

Children with facial differences may find that they experience frequent and long intimidating stares. For example, each time a student looks up in class, the bully is staring at them.

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Social exclusion is a common type of bullying.

Social exclusion

Social exclusion means not letting someone play or join the group. For instance, one child might tell a child with a speech difference “Anyone who does not talk through their nose can be in my club.”

Cyberbullying

Cyberbullying takes place by e-mail, text messaging, or in chat rooms. For example, putting up a student’s picture on a Web site with a negative comment beside it is a form of bullying. This type of bullying can often cause great fear and anxiety for your child.

Signs your child is being bullied

It is important for parents to monitor what their children are looking at online and to teach them to use the Internet safely. Sometimes when a child with a facial difference is bullied, it is not clear that the bullying is related to their facial difference. Bullies might focus on other things, such as the child being shy, less popular, or isolated, or the way they dress.

There are a number of warning signs that you can watch for, that may suggest that taunting or bullying is happening in your child’s life. The most important sign is a recent change in behaviour and habits, overall appearance, or social life.

You may notice the following signs if your child is being taunted or bullied:

  • change in friendships and social activities
  • drop in grades
  • change in mood (irritable, teary, sad, clingy)
  • change in appearance (ripped, torn or missing clothing, unexplained bruises)
  • physical complaints (stomach aches, headaches)
  • change in sleeping and eating patterns

Sometimes, these signs are caused by anxiety and depression and may not be related to bullying. If you notice these changes in your child, talk to your child to find out what they might mean. You can also seek the support of a family doctor or mental health professional.

Strategies for coping with bullying

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Try to stay in a group and use your friends, siblings, and peers for support.

No child should cope with bullying alone. There are many ways that you can prepare your child to respond to people’s questions, and help them cope with bullying.

Telling the story

One strategy is learning to tell the story of why your child looks different. This can be a helpful way to respond to people’s curiosity. For example, if a stranger is staring at your child, you can approach them directly and say, “I see you have noticed my child looks different. Let me tell you why this is so,” and explain why your child looks different. If your child feels comfortable, they can explain their difference themselves.

You may not always need to tell your story. If the person staring or asking questions is someone you know and will see a lot, it may be helpful to take the time to educate that person. If you will not see the person often, you might not want to tell them your story.

Role-playing

You can use role play, or play-acting, to help your child respond to questions. Practice responses to common questions with your child. Common questions that people may ask include:

  • How did you get your scar?
  • Why do you talk like that?
  • Why does your ear look like that?

There are many different ways you can respond to these questions. It is always good for your child to practice with a parent, brother or sister. For example, if a bully says: “You talk funny” your child might answer by saying:

  • “I was born with a cleft palate and it is hard for me to make certain sounds.”
  • “I know, you should have heard me last year.”
  • “Yes, I’m working with a speech-language pathologist to help me.”
  • “If you really want to sound like me I can give you lessons.”
  • “So?” or “Yes, and I’m good at it.”

Teach your child to stand up straight and make good eye contact when talking to people about their facial difference. Being calm and confident is a good idea. Bullies are looking for an emotional response such as anger, fear, frustration or sadness. These responses will encourage the bully to continue. Role playing can help a child confront bullying without showing these emotional responses.

Providing social opportunities, such as group play with non-bullying children, can help develop your child’s skills and strengths in favorite activities to build self-esteem.

If your child is being bullied

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Remain calm and supportive. Trust your child and listen carefully to what they have to say.

Remain calm and supportive. Listen carefully to your child and gather as much information you can. Reassure your child. You can say things like, “You were brave to tell me. It is not your fault. We will work together.” Talk to your child about their strengths and make sure they know how unique and special they are to their friends and family.

Contact the school principal or guidance counselor to share the facts about bullying. Be sure to talk regularly with school staff about the situation. If the bullying is not addressed and a plan is not put in place, consider contacting the school board superintendent.

Tell your child to get immediate help from a trusted adult if they feel at all threatened. Investigate even a suspicion of bullying. Trust your child. Remember, even adults can be bullies.

What not to do

Do not contact the bully or the bully’s family. Inform school authorities and let them contact the bully’s parents. If bullying takes place outside of school property, contact the police or a health professional.

Do not encourage your child to fight back.

Other things your child can do

Your child should learn as much as possible about their facial difference so they can explain it with confidence if people ask or stare. They should practice by role-playing or memorizing what to say. Parents and friends can help with this.

Teach your child to take a deep breath when bullying starts and think: What are the steps I can take to deal with this? What are my choices? Am I safe here or do I need to get help?

If your child feels threatened or uncomfortable in public, he or she should stay in a group as much as possible. Use friends, siblings and peers for support.

Let your child know that it is very important to tell an adult when they are being bullied. If the adult does not help, tell your child to find someone else who will. Bullying should never be ignored. Always report bullying.  Encourage your child to talk to other children with facial differences as well as friends, parents, school staff, teachers, and guidance counselors.

Handling bullying if your child has speech and language problems

Speech and language are important skills for social interaction. If your child has difficulties with communication skills, facing up to a bully can be more challenging.

Role playing can also help in these circumstances. Follow the suggestions in the role playing sections above for strategies on how to role play. If someone is having difficulty understanding your child’s speech, you can say: “If you are having trouble understanding my child, he can repeat it for you, he can say it in a different way, or we can explain it together.”

Key points

  • Children who have facial differences may be more likely to experience bullying than their peers.
  • You and your child can learn strategies for coping with bullying, including role play and preparing responses to other people's questions.
  • Talk about what is happening. Your child can talk to friends, parents, school staff, and teachers when they feel they are being bullied.
Farah Sheikh MSW, RSW
7/29/2011




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