Mommy, Why are they Staring at Me?

Most parents can remember the sting of those first stares. It may have been at the local park or pool when you first saw surprise or fear in other parents’ eyes as they recognized your child’s differences. Perhaps someone was more blunt, asking: “What happened to her?”

“Dealing with stares when your child is first exposed to kids the same age is very hard,” says Dr. Arlette Lefebvre, a child psychiatrist at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. “You realize that people are scared and perplexed by differences, and that their focus is on the external, not on the child behind the disability who you’ve grown to love.”

Negative - or simply curious - reactions can be unbearably painful, creating the urge to avoid social situations. But in learning how to handle them you’ll act as a powerful role model for your child. That’s because even young children pick up on their parents’ cues.

“You want to give children the message that curiosity is natural, that their differences may attract stares, but they can cope with those stares and correct any misperceptions,” Dr. Lefebvre offers, and suggests these tips for explaining differences.

Prepare: Come up with a simple sentence to describe your child’s limb difference and try it out with a friend or other parent.

Go out in pairs: Early on, take a partner or friend for support.

Use a positive spin: Balance information about the amputation with your child’s strengths.

Feature the difference: If you try to hide a difference, people notice it even more. If you put your child in a T-shirt that says ‘Mommy loves me,’ you’re sending a message that you’re comfortable with your child the way he is.

Break the ice: Break the silence of a stare by smiling, making small talk, or asking: “Do you have any questions?”

Humanize devices: Decorate the prosthesis with child-like gadgets or stickers.

Use role play: As children become more verbal, help them come up with, and then practice, their own responses.

Use humour: Offer a light-hearted comment about the “advantages” of the device over a natural hand or foot.

Validate your child: Acknowledge when someone stares or says something hurtful. One of the most common mistakes parents make is to try to protect their children by denying their experiences.