The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday - - Property -

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.”


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.

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