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Tricks of the trade: Handling unwanted attention

When it comes to unwanted attention when you’re out and about, members of the limb different community are all too knowing. Whether it’s someone staring at you in the supermarket, or an inquisitive child asking insensitive questions in the playground, sometimes that extra attention can be a daily occurrence.

Despite the regularity of experiences like this, as a parent of a daughter born without her right hand, I’ve never felt like I’ve mastered the perfect response. As Hero has grown and become more aware I’ve found the challenge of setting a good example to her has become even more important as I try to model a healthy reaction to the attention.

In pursuit of some advice, I have been chatting to an NHS psycho-social nurse who, aside from being incredibly lovely and reassuring, has years of experience in helping families to cope with visible differences. Here I’ve distilled some of that wealth of expertise into a handy list and takeaway toolkit for parents, children and adults alike for when it comes to handling unwanted attention.

1. Stock up your platitude pantry (aka prepare a standard response).

If you have a standard script already rehearsed in your mind (or in your child’s mind), then it can help you to feel more in control of a situation and can reduce feelings of hypervigilance. It can be frustrating, tiring and exhausting to be met with constant questions wherever you go - a script can help you to remove the decision making process and the worrying about what to say.

Whenever anyone asks you a question or tries to enter into a discussion that you don’t want to have, it’s as simple as grabbing an ingredient from the kitchen; just whip open your platitude pantry and deliver your lines.

I absolutely love the excellent response-setting strategy from the wonderful folks at Changing Faces: Explain, Reassure, Divert. As mum to Hero, one of Koalaa’s first users, I’ve been using the Explain, Reassure, Divert method for years. Now she’s older, Hero has started using it herself and has her own well-stocked platitude pantry!

  • Explain – Give a brief explanation

E.g. “I was just born this way.”

  • Reassure – Tell them how awesome you are or your child is

E.g. “I’ve yet to find anything I can’t do!” or “She can do the same things you can!”

  • Divert – Change the subject!

E.g. “Did you see that sky today? Talk about blue!” (any Disney fans out there?!) or “Did you see that tap dancing clown on your way in?” or “Do you want to play chase?” (probably best left to the kids!)

On most occasions when someone is asking questions, sticking to a script that follows the above pattern can be enough to shut down the conversation, and get things moving in a much more enjoyable direction. It’s an especially great strategy to equip children with as they venture off to try new activities or clubs, or are starting in a new school or class.

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2. Reassure yourself or your child (aka practice self care)

The wonderful Explain, Reassure, Divert tool isn’t just something to whip out to explain your difference to inquisitive others, it can also be a brilliant way of processing and moving yourself or your child on from a difficult experience or situation.

  • Explain – Give yourself an explanation

Remind yourself that it’s natural to be curious. That there might be times when you or your child have been curious about something or someone else. Remind yourself that we don’t know what else is going on in someone’s life, they might be having a bad day, they might not have the social skills you do. They might not have meant to upset you at all.

  • Reassure – Tell yourself how awesome you are

Reassure yourself that you are ok. Remind yourself that even if this person is not expressing themselves well and it’s upsetting for you, that you are loved by many and that others certainly don’t feel that way. Remind yourself that you have dealt with this before and that you are strong and capable of doing it again.

  • Divert – Distract yourself

Distract yourself from the situation. You could prepare some affirmations, e.g. “I am beautiful and talented.”, to repeat to yourself. You could map out what you’re going to be doing for the rest of the day, plan that evening’s meal or think about someone you love or whose company you enjoy.

3. Talk it out (aka keep an open conversation)

After you’ve been through an experience where someone has been overtly staring, or demanding questions of you or your child, our expert advises parents to always discuss it with their children afterwards. Opening up the conversation shows your child that it’s totally ok to talk about these experiences and feelings and that they are not something to be afraid of.

It could be as simple as asking them how they felt about what happened. Ask them if it was ok for that person to ask questions. If they were troubled or upset by what happened, acknowledge their feelings and see if you can come up with a planned response for next time it happens (see tip #1). Equipping your child with a stock response can help them to feel more in control of situations as they arise.

Talking through negative experiences directed at you with friends or family members can help you to make sense of what happened. It can also help you to have your feelings heard in a way they might not have been at the time. It’s also a great opportunity to help you develop a strategy or a plan of action to allow you to feel better equipped next time.

4. Perfect your ‘Paddington stare’ (aka call out the rudeness)

More often than not, people don’t mean to be rude, they’re simply curious. This is especially common with younger children who might not have the language skills to ask a question. While we might like to think that most adults have grown out of staring, many simply haven’t yet!

If someone is staring at you and simply won’t let up, it’s totally ok to call them out for being rude. Often, a statement as simple as, “actually, it’s quite rude to stare!” is more than enough to get folks to move on. If you’re not comfortable saying anything, you can also perfect a ‘Paddington stare’ - a firm and direct return of their gaze is often enough to make people realise their error and move on.

5. Walking away is A’OK (aka you’re not responsible for others)