Unfortunately, all children are at risk for being the subject of bullying or just being picked on, but children who have visible differences or disabilities, learning or intellectual differences are especially vulnerable. One issue is that people are still very uncomfortable talking about disabilities and differences. Our culture has a tendency to make differences and disabilities taboo and in turn, make it seem like a forbidden topic that can cause curiosity from even those children who mean no harm at all. Adults often shy away from talking with children about differences and how to learn about them, to not be afraid of them, and how to be friends with children who have differences. Often if we can eliminate fears and curiosity, we can squash some of the bullying and negativity in its tracks and even create a positive and compassionate peer culture.
As parents, one of the best things we can do is to work with educators, school counselors and nurses to help to develop a coping plan for how to manage school. This preparedness on our part sets the expectations of behavior and helps children to better navigate relationships with new challenges. We have a form you can download and review with your child’s teachers and counselors.
Ultimately we hope to create an environment where children feel comfortable standing up for one another in the face of unkindness.
So, how do we go about preparing children and demystifying these differences?
1. Educate: both our children with visible differences AND others
3. Validate and correct misconceptions
4. Develop a coping plan when bullying or mistreatment does occur
For children with a chronic skin conditions:
- Help children develop a quick answer to peers questions. Here’s one example I’ve helped a child with eczema develop: “My skin is so red and has so many ouchies (sores, scabs) because I have eczema. It means I have really dry and itchy skin. You can’t catch it from me. It is not a germ and not like having a cold, or a flu bug. It is just the way my skin is. I use lotion to make it feel better.” If they feel comfortable and have good support group, teach peers and friends who will help answer questions this way for them too.
- A follow up comment on emotions can help too for example: “That’s just my eczema it doesn’t hurt me all the time, but it does hurt me a lot when you call my skin gross and say mean things.”
- Most importantly practice these things at home and practice all kinds of scenarios. Practice more innocent peer questions such as: “What happened to your arm?” And practice more difficult or even unkind questions, “Why does your skin look so bad?” As a part of your rehearsal, decide what your child will do if they don’t want to answer the question, if their feelings are hurt (take deep breaths, get a hug from a friend, stomp their foot, etc), and how they will enlist the teacher if they want support.
- Develop a partnership with your child’s classroom teachers. If you have a child with a visible difference, it can help to set up a meeting to talk with your child’s teacher about how to deal with questions from peers when they come up. Let them know what you have come up with at home and ask them what advice they have on managing this in the classroom. If the teacher knows the language that your family likes to use, and the approach that your child wants to take when a question comes up, you can operate as a team and help one another.
For children who are learning about visible skin differences:
- Provide a simplistic explanation of the disability or difference. (See our current resources on vitiligo by age, scleroderma by age and ichthyosis – we are continuing to add more every month!) Point out that all people have differences that they are not contagious, and it isn’t anything to fear. Although children (and even adults) might be unsure how to work with or establish a relationship with a new person with difference capabilities or appearances then themselves it is an essential life skill.
- Draw similarities from our differences. It can help direct children’s emotional responses. Provide some examples for teachers and other adults to help them having a starting point when teaching classmates about differences. A few examples:
- All skin is different. Just like people can have all different skin colors, people can also have all different types of skin. Some skin can be very dry, some skin has trouble growing hair, some skin has birthmarks and moles.
- You know how your daddy has to wear glasses to help him see? Well Natalie has to use lots of ointment to keep her skin healthy/feeling comfortable.
- We all have something at some point our body needs help with. We all have different foods that are our favorite, and colors that we like to wear, sports and games we like to play and read. Some things are different some things are the same.
3. Validate and correct
- Don’t squash curiosity in our kids. In our effort to develop kindness and compassion in our kids, we don’t want to squash their curiosity or make them feel shame in their interest in differences if they weren’t harmful in their delivery. It is natural that they would want to learn from their friends and peers. Talk to your child about how you want their teacher to handle questions and share their requests with the adults at the school
- Here is an example of how to validate and correct that you can share: “I understand you had never seen skin like that before and so you had some questions. But it is not anything you can catch and so you shouldn’t be afraid to sit by them or play with them. Also, I know you had questions and questions are ok, but there are unfriendly questions and unkind words, and there are kind questions and kind words. How can you ask that questions differently with more kindness? If you are not sure how to ask your question in a kind way, wait to ask mommy or the teacher instead. Either way, you can always play with, talk to or be friendly to a person who looks different from you.”
4. Developing a Coping Plan
- If bullying or unkindess occurs: validate the child. It is uncommon for a child to make up bullying altogether. It is either perceived (such as when a child asks repetitive questions) , which still needs to be addressed, or true unkind malice. Develop a coping plan or technique. Be proactive right away by determining a plan of action to make sure the bullying stops. If the classroom teacher is unable to deal with the issue for whatever reason, then elevate the issue to the school principal.
- Talk about what feelings they are having and how all feelings are ok, but there are things we can do to feel better. Give them examples such as smooshing a pillow or play doh, journaling, making arts and crafts, talking with mom or dad, going on a walk, petting the family dog, and taking deep breaths. When you identify things that help your child feel better, share those with their teacher.
- Have some coping plan conversation starters you
- It is ok to feel sad and/or mad sometimes. But it doesn’t feel good to feel sad or mad for a long time.
- What are somethings that make you feel better when you are sad or mad?. Some kids I know feel better after being mad when they get the chance to yell or scream, or smash something.
- Some kids like listening to music, talking to a friend or family member or writing in a journal when they feel sad. What sounds like some good ideas to you?
A note about the bullying or questioning child:
It can be tempting to make assumptions about the intentions of the child who said the unkind words or unkind thing as an excuse with the child that was hurt by it. “He was just jealous that he doesn’t get to wear a hat at school, so he picked on you forgetting to wear yours, because you have no hair.” “She was afraid that she could catch your skin disease and so she said mean things about your psoriasis, but she didn’t mean to hurt you.” While this type of explaining might feel as if we are softening the blow for the child who has experienced the bullying, it instead can be harmful and makes them feel as if their feelings aren’t valid. It also runs the risk that now the adult that they shared their feelings with has become unsafe and undependable. It is fine to ask the child in question to explain their own behavior and tell the truth about it (rather than making assumptions yourself) but make sure to follow it with, “that doesn’t make it ok” and it is “unacceptable and won’t be tolerated any more.” In the same way that we wouldn’t excuse a physical accident from making amends or an apology, we should not excuse unkind behaviors just because they came from an ignorant/unknowing place. Always validate the hurt child’s feelings. “I can definitely understand why you are sad/ mad. Those words are very hurtful and I would not like hearing them either.”
Other great resources for positive coping:
Look for opportunities for kids with differences to be among peers that understand what they are going through. A Children’s House for the Soul does almost monthly events for children who are impacted by skin disease to get together, play and have fun. This kind of unification does wonders for the whole family.
Interested in bringing a program to your school that teaches about the health and science of skin as well as about building compassion and empathy towards others? Check out our school program.
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