HOW WE ROSE ABOVE THE BULLIES ‘ PEOPLE SHOULD KNOW WHAT KIDS LIKE ME HAVE BEEN THROUGH’
HOW TO TALK TO CHILDREN ABOUT VISIBLE DIFFERENCES
Claire Thompson admits she was terrified when her son Sam was due to move to secondary school. Her older daughter, May, had already made the transition and the family from Mosborough, Sheffield, knew full well that it only took having a few spots or the wrong trainers to single you out for bullying. Sam, however, was born with a severe cleft lip and palate.
At his primary school, a close network of friends followed his journey as he had several operations (12 to date) to correct his palate. Sure enough, secondary school threw him together with less empathetic souls.
Other kids would call through the window, “What’s wrong with your face?” and his sister was furious when she found out people were referring to Sam as Voldemort, the villain from Harry Potter.
The nasty comments and stares have undoubtedly had an effect on Sam, and Thompson knows when he’s had a difficult day. “He’ll come home and be very tough, pretending that nothing is wrong, but as he gets tired I can see that he’s not himself.” And yet, to meet the 14-year-old is to be impressed by his maturity and strong sense of self.
“It’s frustrating, but it’s their problem and nothing to do with me,” he says in his straightforward Yorkshire accent. “People want a reaction. They want attention. I just want to go to school, learn, come out with great grades and get on with my life.”
Changing Faces has helped Sam and his mother to navigate these difficult waters – Thompson contacted the charity when Sam made the move to secondary school. Its support has given him the tools to deal with any bullying he encounters. Attending workshops with other young people with visible differences has even made him realise how confident he is compared to others.
His confidence has long been a source of pride to his family. “He’s carried on being exactly who he is,” says Thompson. “When he was younger, and still now, Sam always wanted to wear bright colours and draw attention to himself. He’s never been afraid to stand out.”
It’s made him a natural champion for Changing Faces and he has enjoyed the opportunity to talk on TV and radio about the charity and his own experiences. “I want people to be aware of different facial disfigurements so they can learn about them,” he says. “People should know what kids like me have been through.”
School has also improved since he has spoken out, giving his fellow students a deeper insight into his experiences. Thompson is amazed by the confident teenager that Sam has become, and he has a great group of friends.
“My concern was that those comments would make him shy away from who he wanted to be. But it hasn’t, it’s just reinforced who he is. He’s just a normal kid who goes to school, plays guitar and goes on his Xbox. Well, as normal as a teenager ever can be.”
SAM CHEATLE FROM CHANGING FACES SAYS:
Explain that everybody is unique. Everyone is different and that is a good thing. Use examples: hair colour, height etc. Encourage them to think about how their friends and family are different from each other. Parents can use our “Explain, Reassure, Distract” slogan when approaching a situation with their child. Explain: “I think you’ve noticed this little boy has some scars on his face.
Reassure: “They don’t seem to be painful or upsetting him, do they?” Distract: “It looks like he’s having a lot of fun on the swings. You like swings. Shall we go on the one next to him?” Don’t shush or steer children away. It’s normal to be curious. Engage them in understanding more about the situation and encouraging them to be kind and friendly and take the time to get to know someone. Explain that just because someone looks different, doesn’t mean they’re different in every way.
Older children can understand a bit more that a person with a visible difference has feelings like they do. Don’t stare, laugh or point. Imagine how you would feel if that happened to you. Model a response to children – make eye contact, smile and carry on. If they can see that you are talking to a child in a normal way they will respond to that. It can be difficult to know if it’s OK to ask a question. Some people with a visible difference might be happy to answer, some might not. We’re all different. Check before you ask.
Ultimately, smiling and being a friendly person is key.