Coping with other people’s reactions to your child’s visible difference

We provide tips to help you respond to unwanted attention due to your child’s appearance and share advice on explaining people’s reactions to your child.

As a parent, it can be difficult to cope with other people’s reactions to your child’s visible difference.

In this guide, we explore how people might react and how you can respond to defuse the situation and model a positive response to your child.

Resources to share with your child

The information on this page has been written to support you, as the parents and carers of young people with visible differences. We have produced separate advice and guidance for children and young people. You might want to share the guides linked below with your child or you could read them together.

How might people react?

Here are two examples of how people might act:

  • You’re standing in the queue to pay at the supermarket when you notice that someone is staring intently at your baby and nudging their companion.
  • You are walking down the street when someone comes up to you and asks about your child’s appearance.

This kind of attention can be upsetting and intrusive and it is often difficult for parents because it is so unexpected. Many parents report feeling completely unprepared to deal with this sort of curiosity and it can leave them feeling angry, sad and anxious about going out.

There is always the fear as he gets older of ‘what if’ – and he is so gentle that he’d never hit back, but hopefully people will see past how he looks and see Sam for who he is.

Claire (Sam’s mum)

Why do people behave this way?

Usually, this behaviour is simply thoughtlessness. Most people are just curious and don’t mean to upset you – they forget to think about how it might make you feel if you see them looking at your child or if they come up to you and ask uninvited questions.

It is natural for humans to feel curious, interested or surprised when we come across something new. Think about a time when you saw something new, or someone who looked different. What did you think? What did you do?

Of course, this doesn’t mean it is OK for anyone to intrude on you in this way – but it can be helpful to know that, usually, they are not trying to hurt you or your child’s feelings.

How to cope with unwanted attention

Children often look to adults for how to behave. How you respond to unwanted attention may shape how they react themselves in future. They may be listening to what you say when you respond to people and may copy your style or language. Use the words you are happy with your child hearing and using themselves.

If you respond in an angry way, it is likely your child will do this too. A polite, simple explanation that your child looks different, but they are fine, can be enough to stop any further attention. This can be difficult and you may feel the person does not deserve your polite approach. However, this will help your child to see a calm way of dealing with the situation. Just because you choose to respond calmly, doesn’t mean you can’t feel angry inside!

Consider how much you say and how much of your child’s situation to share. This may depend who you are talking to and how public the situation is. If your child is old enough to understand what is going on, sharing lots of details about their condition, mark or scar may make them feel awkward, uncomfortable or even more upset. Your response should aim to defuse the situation and end the conversation – the other person does not have a right to know all the details of your child’s medical situation.

Explaining people’s reactions to your child

This may be a bewildering and upsetting experience for your child. It’s important that they understand that it is not about them.

Preparing for people’s reactions

If your child is old enough, you may choose to have a conversation with them to help them prepare for other people’s reactions so you can decide together how to respond.

As your child gets older it is important to teach them to be confident in managing other people’s reactions, and to know that if someone is rude or upsetting, it is OK for them to walk away and to tell someone. We have some resources for young people on how to cope with staring, unkind comments and questions.

They may face difficult reactions when they are on their own – at school, for example – so it is important that they have thought about how they want to respond.

After an unkind comment is made

If possible, take your child away from where the incident happened to somewhere that feels safe, so you can reassure them and talk about what happened.

Here are some things you may choose to say to your child:

  • “People are curious. It’s natural to be interested or surprised when you see something new. Sometimes people just forget their manners and don’t think about how you might feel.”
  • “Some people might be wondering what happened to you and worry that you are hurt or in pain. It’s not fair to stare but people don’t always realise they are doing it.”
  • “It isn’t nice when people make unkind comments. A lot of people receive nasty comments, whether they look different or not. Sometimes people say horrible things because of the colour of someone’s hair, because they’re tall or short or because of their clothes.”

It is sometimes helpful to talk about how the unwanted attention made your child feel. If your child is upset or angry, acknowledge this and share your feelings too. For example, you could say something like, “Yes it is upsetting, I didn’t like it either, but some people are curious and it isn’t about you, it is about them.” This can help your child to be clear that the problem lies with others and not themselves.

You could have a conversation about how they behave when they are curious. Ask them to think about the last time they saw someone or something different. What did they say and do? This may help them understand that most people are not trying to be hurtful – even if their actions have that effect.

“What’s wrong with you?”

“What’s wrong with you?” is a difficult question which children might often face at school or when they are out with their friends. The question is particularly hard because trying to navigate the negativity of the word “wrong” can be tricky.

Of course, nothing is “wrong” with your child – they have a visible difference and simply look different to other children in some way due to their condition, mark or scar. Discussing this with them can help them understand that this question is more of a reflection of other people’s ignorance, biases and expectations.

Talking this through will help your child find the words to respond. Again, this is something you can model to your child if you face this question when you are together.

Preparing others

It is important that teachers and childcare providers know how to support your child. It can be helpful for them to know what does and does not reassure your child if they are upset by other people’s reactions. This ensures your child is supported when they need it, in a consistent way.

You might also like