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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)

Sometimes we’re not in the right headspace to call someone out for being rude, sometimes it feels too much to even return a stare. Our expert can’t stress enough that however you’re feeling is ok - if all you want to do is walk away from a situation then that is a totally reasonable reaction.

It is definitely not your responsibility to educate anyone else and by walking away you are not ‘letting the side down’ or missing an opportunity. You, and your child, must always be at the centre of everything you choose to do. If pointing out someone’s rudeness will make you feel better, then that’s great. If simply turning your back and removing yourself from a situation is the easiest and safest course of action for you, then that is an equally valid response.

6. Get off the anger train (aka anger’s worse for you than them)

Sometimes things can get too much. One person too many might stare at you or question your difference. On those occasions anger is often the emotion that rises to the surface and clouds everything else.

Our expert stresses, however, that while anger can be a validating feeling at the time, it can also be a very out-of-control emotion. You never know just how far your anger will go, it escalates and can leave you with a lingering fog over the rest of your day, and beyond.

Avoiding those angry spikes in adrenaline is often better for you as an individual and as a family, and has little to do with sparing the other person’s feelings. The angrier you get, the lower your tolerance becomes each time, and that can leave you and your child in an unhelpful place.

Alway ask yourself, what is best for you and for your child. You are the most important person in this situation and you should be at the heart of the choices you make. Rarely is anger ever a constructive feeling and perhaps whipping a reply out of your platitude pantry or offering up a Paddington stare might leave you with less of a bitter taste in your mouth than shouting and raging.

7. Let tall tales slide (aka it’s ok to say a shark ate it!)

If your child is questioned by another kid in the soft play area, and you can’t help but overhear your little one reply, “It was bitten off by a great white shark!” (insert carnivorous animal here!) The expert advice is to just roll with it.

Making up a dramatic story when you’ve been asked about your limb difference one too many times or if someone is being particularly bothersome, is a way for your child to take control of the situation.

While it can be fun to come up with creative mishaps with your child, our expert cautions that it’s probably unhelpful for an adult to suggest or encourage it. Children will always go through phases, if this week it’s a shark and next week it’s a T-rex - then all power to them!

8. Perfection is a myth (aka be kind to yourself)

We’re only human. Sometimes life can be a bit much, we’re running late, it’s pouring with rain, your kid is screaming the place down, and if someone asks about your difference at an inopportune moment it can tip you right over the edge.

Be kind to yourself. Don’t berate yourself for not modelling the perfect response to your child, for snapping at that adult staring at you in the queue. Remind yourself that you are always doing the best you can, and if you want to you can talk it out with someone and put together a plan for next time it’s raining.

9. Curiosity isn’t a crime (aka normalise being different)

For both adults and children, long term it can be really helpful and reassuring to remember that it’s normal for people to be curious about differences. Especially where other children are concerned, they often don’t have the language skills to ask about a difference, or the social skills to know that staring is rude. For many children, when they stare they are trying to process something they’ve seen that is new to them.

While taking the moral high ground isn’t always easy, and there are definite occasions where people have left the realms of the curious and are shoulder to shoulder with the rude (see tip #4), it can be helpful to remind yourself that not all rudeness is intentional.

Fostering your and your child’s understanding of how people react is a cornerstone for equipping you both for living life with a difference. Understanding that the questions and the stares will happen from time to time and that more often than not they come from a place of curiosity and not malice, can help you to avoid the anger and the frustration and allow you to carry on with your day without being burdened by the negativity.

This post is focused on the kind of attention that, while unpleasant and insensitive, isn’t meant with malice or bad intentions. For further advice on how to deal with challenging situations involving direct insults or comments, check out the Changing Faces’ pages about handling hurtful comments for children and young people or their section about harassment and abuse for adults.

In the creation of this toolkit, Koalaa would like to give our thanks to the team at Changing Faces who kindly gave us permission to share some of their excellent tools and tips. We really encourage people to visit their help and support pages for some superb strategies and advice for coping with visible differences: We would also love to thank the ever giving and experienced NHS psychosocial nurse for giving us so much of her time and knowledge in talking over these challenging topics.

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