One of the most important lessons parents can teach their children is to be accepting and compassionate to those who look different from them. But, it can also be one of the most challenging lessons to teach. Celia Heppner, Psy.D., plastic and craniofacial surgery psychologist at Children’s Health℠ and assistant professor of psychiatry at UT Southwestern, explains that teaching your child about physical differences begins at a young age and continues throughout childhood and the teenage years.
Ways in which people might look different
A child might notice when a classmate, friend or stranger looks different from themself. These differences can be due to a variety of reasons, including:
- Facial differences, both congenital (present from birth) or acquired (developed over time)
- Facial or body changes due to side effects of medical treatment, such as chemotherapy or long-term steroid treatment
- Weight or height differences
Dr. Heppner says, “There are many physical differences that are not actually associated with a medical condition but can lead to appearance differences that can make the child vulnerable to bullying or social stigma.”
What happens to kids who look different
By the time they graduate high school, Dr. Heppner shares that three-fourths of kids have been bullied at some point in their life. Unfortunately, kids who have a facial difference resulting from a craniofacial condition or any sort of appearance difference are at an increased risk for bullying and isolation.
Kids with an appearance difference may experience other forms of social stigma from other kids and sometimes from adults, including staring or avoidance. “Kids may feel uncomfortable interacting with others who look different,” says Dr. Heppner. “They may realize consciously there is nothing different with that person on the inside, but, socially, might struggle with things like asking questions impulsively, going along with other peers who are acting insensitively, or worrying that they’ll say the wrong thing and avoiding the interaction altogether.”
Teaching your child to be accepting of others
As a parent, there are age-appropriate steps you can take to help your child learn to be accepting of others who may look different from them. The basis of this teaching is demonstrating and modeling kind, inclusive behavior whenever you encounter a person with a physical difference.
Planting the seeds of acceptance in young children (pre-K and under)
“It’s important for parents to keep in mind that young children are still learning the social rules and expectations around interacting with others,” reminds Dr. Heppner. “So, it is very common for them to ask direct questions or point things out that might be considered rude or socially not appropriate from an older child or adult. This usually occurs out of curiosity, rather than a true effort to be mean.” If this happens, it’s important for parents to use the opportunity to teach and demonstrate to their child:
- How to interact kindly with others with differences and to avoid staring, pointing or excluding them
- How and when it’s appropriate to ask questions about differences
- How to ask the question and move on (not badgering the person with repeated questions)
Laying the groundwork and fostering a disposition of acceptance starts at an early age. If you begin having these conversations with your child early on, and practice good modeling behaviors, it can help your child positively progress through the childhood and adolescent years and help them view the world compassionately.
Instilling acceptance in school-aged children (K-6th grade)
Dr. Heppner says, “When kids and parents are interacting with somebody with an observable difference, parents can use that opportunity to model good social skills, being kind, inclusive and accepting – attitudes and behaviors they’d like their kids to adopt and use.” At this age, parents can also begin to explore ideas with their children like fairness, empathy and taking someone else’s perspective. And, as the child gets older, parents can talk about ways to approach certain situations like seeing a peer being bullied because of a difference and discuss how their child can help in those situations.
Fostering acceptance through the teenage years (7th-12th grade)
Parents should continue to use opportunities to model kindness whenever one becomes available. Perspective taking is a skill that continues to develop throughout adolescence, so many teens can still benefit from talking about what it would be like and how they would feel if they were “in someone else’s shoes.” If parents are concerned about their child bullying others, use that as an opportunity to get a professional involved, such as a therapist or school counselor.
Ongoing process of exposure and open dialogue
Parents can have many opportunities to talk with their child about acceptance and compassion. These conversations can be ongoing – a conversation that can be revisited many times as a child is growing up. Parents should make sure their children are able to process their reactions to people who are different and provide opportunities where their child will have more exposure to people who are different from them.
“It’s also important for parents and kids to consider that many people may have differences that aren’t physically observable,” Dr. Heppner says. “You can tell many things by looking at external appearances, but many people have differences or difficulties that we can’t see by physical appearances. Encourage kids to think about how people may be different on that level, in addition to things they might have in common with people who may initially seem different.”
Additional resources to keep the conversation going
For more information, check out Stop Bullying, a great resource for parents to get this important conversation going with your child. Dr. Heppner also recommends the following books on the topic:
For younger kids:
For later elementary school and middle school-aged kids:
The multidisciplinary team of specialists at Fogelson Plastic Surgery and Craniofacial Center at Children’s Health provides diagnosis, treatment, counseling and support for children with any reconstructive need. Learn more about our programs.
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