Handling staring

There is a difference between the inquisitive looks we all give each other when we first meet someone and outright staring. Unfortunately, most people with a visible difference are all too familiar with people staring in curiosity or surprise. Staring can be difficult and uncomfortable, even distressing or offensive if it carries on.

It can help to try to understand why people stare – and this will help you to explain the staring to yourself and your child. Not everyone will have met someone with a condition, mark or scar before – and most of us are naturally curious when we see something or someone different. People often look longer than usual without realising they are doing this, to make sense of what they are seeing. People might stare or double-take or turn away because they are surprised, uncomfortable or unsure how to act.

Most people are not being ‘deliberately’ hurtful. Remembering this may reassure you and your child. Maybe you could think of a time you were interested, shocked or surprised by someone’s different appearance – it’s possible you were also curious and looked for longer than usual.

There are a number of ways you can respond to staring:

Help the person to become aware of their staring

  • Look back, smile and hold the other person’s gaze briefly. Most people will smile back and then look away;
  • Look back, smile or nod to show them you have noticed – this may also break the ice;
  • For more persistent ‘starers’, look back and hold their gaze whilst raising your eyebrows as an acknowledgement that you’ve noticed their staring;
  • If the staring continues, frown to tell them you are not happy.

Decide not to respond

You might notice someone staring at your child and you might decide that you are not going to respond to them. You don’t have to see not responding as a sign of ‘letting them get away with it’, it is your power to choose how you will respond to others.

Move away

You may decide to move away from the person who is staring because you do not feel comfortable, and you might not want your child to notice.

Reassure yourself

Using reassuring self-talk can help to manage your feelings about people staring as it can be upsetting sometimes. You will find your own, but here are some examples of phrases you might say to yourself:

  • They are just curious, maybe they know someone who has the same condition;
  • They may be too nervous to ask me a question about my child;
  • I know they are staring but I am going to choose to think about something else, I don’t need to spend energy thinking about someone staring at my child;
  • Staring is rude and I don’t need to talk to someone who is being rude.

Preparing responses

It can be helpful to prepare some responses in advance. Try the exercises below and write your answers down or make a note in your phone/tablet/laptop.

Having a brief explanation ready when you notice someone staring at your child can diffuse an awkward situation. It can help people to move beyond their initial reactions and make it easier for you to get on with your normal routine.

There is no need to provide adults or children you meet in public with in depth medical explanations. A brief and straightforward answer will satisfy most people:

“I see that you have noticed Jordan’s face. It is the way he was born.”

“Zarina’s face is swollen on one side. It doesn’t hurt her.”

“Mason has eczema. That is why his skin is red and itchy. You can’t catch it.”

“Tom was born with Neurofibromatosis (NF). It means he gets lumps and bumps under his skin.”

Sometimes it is enough to just smile at the person. This can break a stare or reassure someone. Simply saying “hello” also lets people know that you are okay and it suggests that they can approach you too.

You might also like to look at our self-help on handling comments and handling questions.

Handling questions

Read

Handling comments

Read

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