Social life and meeting new people as a parent of a child with visible difference

We share advice on how you can manage difficult social interactions when meeting new people, so you can protect your child and look after yourself.

Most of us feel nervous when we meet people we don’t know. If your child has a visible difference, you may feel more anxious about meeting new people – especially if you have had to manage a lot of unwanted attention.

Difficult social interactions can take an emotional toll on you as a parent while at the same time you want to protect your child. Balancing these things can be tough.

On this page, we share some advice on how you can manage these challenges when meeting new people.

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.

Difficulties social interactions may present

If you are a parent of a child with visible difference, everyday activities such as going to the shops or the park or taking your child to school can bring unexpected difficulties when meeting new people.

A stranger’s friendly approach when seeing you and your child may turn into an expression of surprise or even shock when they notice your child’s appearance. People may avert their eyes, change their mind about talking to you and walk away. They may ask what happened or blurt something out, rather than saying the usual “hello”.

Some people make assumptions about your child, based on their appearance. They may assume that your child is less intelligent, will not be successful, won’t have friends or relationships, or assume they will not enjoy life.

“I remember being at the school gates waiting for Kerry, and another mum said, ‘It’s so nice that she has been accepted into a “normal” school considering all her problems.’

“I was furious. Kerry was bright and sociable and didn’t have any problems. This mum had assumed because Kerry had a visible difference she must have had ‘problems’.

“I turned to her and said, ‘My child has no problems’. As I said this Kerry came running out laughing and with a ‘star of the week’ certificate – I just smiled at the other mum as I hugged my funny, wonderful little girl.”

Kathy

How you might feel

Meeting new people can create an uncomfortable situation and lead to assumptions on both sides. It may cause you to assume the worst about the other person’s motives. Worse still, you may assume that every interaction will be like this and that other people will always try to upset you and your child.

As a result of a few experiences like this, you may:

  • Expect that you and your child will always feel uncomfortable when meeting new people, which can make you even more worried.
  • Feel angry with the people giving your child a hard time and shout or feel upset.
  • Take out your frustration on the people around you, like your family.
  • Keep it bottled up inside and try not to think about it.

It may feel as if the only answer is to avoid going out. Although this may protect you and your child from negative reactions, it will also deprive both of you of much-needed social interaction and cause you to hide away from the world. Staying in the house is not the answer for you or your child – and it can make it even harder when you do have to meet new people.

Why people have negative reactions

Understanding why people can have negative reactions is often the first step to handling difficult behaviour.

At Changing Faces, we use the acronym SCARED to describe what might happen when meeting new people. It explains how people might feel and what this can cause them to do.

Is the other person SCARED?

IF THEY FEEL…THEY MIGHT…
Sorry / ShockedSStare / be Speechless
Curious / ConfusedCbe Clumsy
AnxiousAAsk questions / be Awkward
RepelledRRecoil / be Rude
EmbarrassedEbe Evasive
DistressedDseem Distracted

You can see from the table that a person who stares speechlessly at your child may be feeling shocked because they haven’t seen someone who looks like them before. They may also feel sorry for them because they assume they are in pain. Although this is not an appropriate way to behave, you can see that they are motivated by surprise and compassion – not the desire to cause hurt or make you and your child feel uncomfortable.

Do you and your child feel SCARED?

IF YOU FEELYOU MIGHT…
Self-consciousSAct Shy
Conspicuous (standing out)Cwant to Cover your child up
Angry / AnxiousAbe Angry / Anxious
Rejected – like people don’t want to know youRRetreat – pull away or hide from people
EmbarrassedEbe Evasive – ignore people
DifferentDact Defensively – try to protect yourself

You may feel some of the things in this table and if your child is old enough to understand the situation, they may too. The impression the other person gets of who we are and what we are feeling may be skewed by how we act, just as our impression of them might be inaccurate.

What can I do?

We have lots of suggestions about what you can do to cope with other people’s reactions in this section of our website. Let’s start with a few basic suggestions.

Things to remember

First of all, it may help to remember the following things:

  • Your child is unique and amazing.
  • Their appearance is just one part of them. By going out and being around others, more people will get to see their personality.
  • Other people may act in the way they do because they are SCARED.

Provide a consistent explanation

We suggest that people come up with at least one explanation that everyone caring for your child can use about their appearance if asked. This includes relatives, friends, other parents, nursery or playgroup staff, childminder and so on. If your child is old enough, you could discuss this with them.

Hearing this explanation helps your child become familiar with their visible difference and will teach them that they don’t need to shy away from or try to hide it. Having a response in mind can also help you, your child and others to feel more confident, even if you decide not to discuss your child’s visible difference.

Set an example for your child

Children often look to adults for how to behave. How you respond to unwanted attention may be something that your child will imitate. Your child may be listening to what you say when you respond to people and might copy your style or language. Use words you are happy with your child hearing and using themselves.

What will you share?

Consider how much of your child’s story you should share and who you want to share it with. You will probably want to share different amounts of information with different people. For example, what you tell a close friend may be very different to what you tell another parent at your child’s school. Again, this will be different to what you tell a stranger.

Be mindful that anything you share with another parent may lead to a friend or peer asking your child about their appearance at school. If your child is old enough, it is good to have a conversation with them about how much they wants their peers to know so you can agree what each of you says to others about their situation.

Other reading

Take a look at the other pages in this section, which provide further advice to help you manage other people’s reactions to your child’s visible difference.

You might also like

What to do when people stare

Staring can make your child feel uncomfortable and awkward. We consider why people stare and explore ways to help you and your child cope.

Handling comments and questions

Comments and questions can be unkind, thoughtless or designed to hurt. We share some suggestions about how you can deal with this.