Looking different can be very challenging, not only for a child with vitiligo but also for their parents or carers. Instead of just the usual concerns about separation anxiety when starting kindergarten, or the chaos associated with buying school books, uniforms and working out bus routes and timetables when starting high school, parental anxiety and uneasiness centres around the fear that your child who “looks different” to the other kids may suffer any of the following as a result of their vitiligo:
- Feel embarrassed or ashamed
- Suffer anxiety
- Become angry and defensive
- Be made to feel different and noticeable
- Be cut off from forming friendships with other children
- May feel sad
- Be unfairly judged by other children and even teachers
It’s important to come to terms with the fact that people will stare at your special vitiligo child. This inevitability needs to be conveyed to children in a simple easy to understand fashion. Explain that it is human nature for us to be naturally curious when we see something different for the first time, but staring does not usually mean one is shocked, scared, distressed or put off by the way your child looks. Reassure children that people are not trying to be deliberately rude or hurtful. Whenever our brain cannot work out exactly what our eyes are seeing, people often look longer without even realising that they are doing this. Emphasise that the majority of people will not be deliberately hurtful.
It’s important to keep reminding yourself (and your child) that there is more to them than just how they look, and that looking different is ok. Keeping that in mind, putting your child as a person first is critical to addressing the subject in school. You want the children in school to accept your child as a person, not as a condition. You want your child known as “the kid who is really good at football, and happens to have skin with two different colours” instead of “the kid who has the white spots on their skin”
Before that big first day at preschool or high school it may help to let teachers and other children know in advance. Be open and upfront about your child’s vitiligo by answering questions and concerns right away. This eliminates misunderstanding and decreases the possibility of “whispers” and “finger-pointing”. Once others are aware of vitiligo and know its neither contagious nor dangerous most will just go about things as usual.
If necessary engage with the school to use vitiligo as a way of promoting acceptance of anyone who is different, similar to how we accept people of all races, sexual preference or religious beliefs.
At home don’t always make vitiligo the first and main topic of conversation instead allowing your child to open up about any significant “events” that might be occurring when they are away from home.
Be vigilant however at all times, for subtle signs that may indicate a problem such as anxiety, depression, low self-esteem or bullying.
Warning signs that your child is not coping with vitiligo may include:
- not wanting to go to school
- having frequent tears, anger, mood swings and anxiety
- refusing to talk about what is wrong
- having trouble getting out of bed complaining of always been tired
- having unexplained stomach aches or vague pain
- a change in their sleeping or eating patterns
- a drop in their school performance
- being alone or excluded from friendship groups at school
- avoiding situations where their vitiligo may be seen by others, for example, change rooms, swimming lessons, school plays
- appearing insecure or frightened
- being a frequent target for teasing, mimicking or ridicule.
- showing an unwillingness to discuss, or secrecy about, their online communication.
Any suspicion of problems need to be addressed immediately. A good place to start is with your child’s School and General Practitioner before then discussing the matter appropriately with your child. If necessary a professional such as a child psychologist or school counsellor can be referred to for assistance.
Remember, you are not alone, and others have been through exactly what you are feeling as parents!