Handling Teasing and Making Friends
We all have differences. Our looks or how we speak or act can make other people curious about us and may lead to teasing and bullying. Children and teens with facial differences can sometimes feel left out or put down through no fault of their own. Preparing for attention and questions from classmates, strangers, or others can help build confidence in social situations.
At times kids may think other kids are being mean when they don’t intend to be. “Sometimes a question is asked over and over in such a way that it becomes very difficult for a child,” says Elisa Bronfman, PhD, a psychologist in the Medical Coping Clinic at Children’s Hospital Boston. “For example, a child who has a port wine stain may often have others ask, ‘Were you burned in a fire?’ It’s a quest for understanding, but the child may feel the intent is to hurt.” Having a ready explanation can help. In this case, a simple response could be, “No, it’s my birthmark.” When onlookers stare, point, or whisper, they may also just be wondering why someone else looks different. “Asking questions would benefit both sides,” says Monir Sakha, mother of Diba Jalalzadeh, 8, who was born with Crouzon syndrome, which results from the abnormal development of the eye sockets and mid-face. “I would like people to come forward and ask. I would be more than happy to explain, even if it’s just idle curiosity. It’s the best way to eliminate the stigma.”
What Is Bullying?
Sometimes curiosity turns to cruelty. Other children who do not understand why, for example, a child with cleft Elisa Bronfman, PhD lip and palate looks or speaks differently may resort to ridicule. “Sometimes kids, who don’t feel that great about themselves, may find something different about another kid and tease,” says Dr. Bronfman. “If they get a reaction, they may do it again and again.” Teasing is not always meant to hurt or embarrass—in fact, even friends and family can tease at times. But if teasing occurs over and over as part of a pattern of behavior intended to hurt emotionally or physically, it’s considered bullying. Bullying comes in many forms, including repeated name-calling, gossip- ing, punching or shoving, or purposefully leaving someone out. Despite the popular perception, not all bullies are tough guys. They may be girls or boys, children or adults. Often they’re looking for ways to feel more powerful or superior. Or they may be just going along with others in a group or trying to keep from being bullied themselves.
How to Respond
Contrary to the old saying “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” words do hurt. If a child or teen encounters teasing in school, where it can’t be avoided, developing a coping strategy can help. “If you hear the same thing over and over, you can start to absorb what other people say about you,” says Dr. Bronfman. “That’s why we’re not big advocates of ignoring it and walking away. If someone says that your ear is little and looks funny, you can say to yourself, ‘That person doesn’t know what he’s talking about.’ It’s an active response—even if you say nothing to that person—as opposed to passive acceptance. When deciding how to respond, consider the following: Who did the teasing—a friend or the school bully? Did the comment come out of ignorance or a failed attempt at humor? Was the person purposefully being mean?
Depending on who and why as well as personal style, you or your child might choose to:
Ignore the remark
Respond with humor
Disagree (“I don’t think so”)
Talk back (“I don’t like it when you…”)
Try to educate the teaser
By practicing at home with parents or other family members, children can develop self-confidence and respond with ease. Making light of the ridicule (“What does that even mean?” or “What kind of an insult is that?”) can diminish its power. No matter what the response, it has to fit family values and rules, says Dr. Bronfman. Some parents might suggest saying, “Whatever” or something mean in return, while others would disapprove of those approaches. “I encourage Diba to be welcoming, kind, and warm,” says Monir. And she adds, “I believe parents can play an important role and need to educate themselves about strategies for dealing with bullying and teasing. One effective way is teaching children to include people with differences—the more inclusion, the less teasing.” If despite all efforts, the bully doesn’t back down, alert school authorities or ask a health professional for help. Talking to the community liaison police officer at the school is another option, especially if physical threats are involved.
“Very often kids with medical differences don’t get bullied by their peers,” says Dr. Bronfman. “They are fully accepted in their communities, especially if they live in small communities where everyone knows [about their condition].” Finding a group of friends who are accepting helps kids with facial differences build confidence and self-esteem. Friends can also offer invaluable support if teasing or bullying by others becomes a problem. Becoming involved in clubs, sports, or other organizations fosters relationships with those with similar interests. Being interested in others and being interesting—by developing an ability, talent, or great sense of humor—are vital to building a network of supportive friends.
Books for parents:
Bullyproof Your Child for Life. Protect from Teasing, Taunting, and Bullying for Good by Joel Haber, PhD, with Jenna Glatzer. (Perigee Trade, 2007)
The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander by Barbara Coloroso. (Collins Living, 2004)
Books for Children and Teens:
Confessions of a Former Bully by Trudy Ludwig. (Tricycle Press, 2010) Stand Up for Yourself & Your Friends by Patti Kelley Criswell. (American Girl, 2009)
Operation Respect founded by Peter Yarrow at operationrespect.org Information for all ages at stopbullyingnow.hrsa.gov