When children are born with a craniofacial condition such as cleft lip and palate, parents often worry about how they will think and feel about themselves as they grow and how other people may treat them. While teasing and bullying are concerns for all parents, children with craniofacial conditions may be especially vulnerable because of the visibility of their facial appearance differences and speech or learning.
Even if children are not teased, they may encounter other unwanted attention such as staring or questions about their appearance or speech differences. These types of experiences, if unaddressed, can take a toll on a child’s self-image and even lead to more problems like anxiety or depression.
Thankfully, there are several practical strategies that parents can use to support their child’s confidence in social situations and help manage teasing and bullying.
Teach your child about his/her craniofacial diagnosis from an early age. This can include looking at photographs before and after surgery together. Being informed about their condition can help children feel more comfortable answering questions and increase their self-confidence.
Prepare and rehearse an age-appropriate response to questions. The response should include three parts:
- A brief explanation about the child’s craniofacial diagnosis or difference (“I was born with a cleft lip and palate.”)
- A statement to reassure the person about the condition or difference (“It doesn’t hurt, and the doctors fixed it with surgery”)
- A question that shifts the conversation away towards another topic or a shared interest (“Would you like to see my new doll?” or “Hey, did you watch the football game last night?”).
Respond to staring with a smile or friendly wave. These are non-verbal ways to acknowledge that you noticed their stares and sets the stage for a positive interaction.
Model and encourage confident body language in social situations. For example, make eye contact when talking to others, smile, and standing up straight (good posture).
Teach your child how to respond to teasing or bullying.
- In the moment, encourage active ignoring (e.g., pretending that they did not hear the taunt) or saying “stop” and walking away with confidence. Bullies often thrive on getting an emotional response from their targets (such as making them cry), and ignoring, or not showing any emotion, may prevent the bully from trying again.
- Make a joke or use humor. These can also be effective strategies for responding to unwanted questions about appearance or speech.
- Encourage your child to use the buddy system (e.g., staying with friends in situations where the bullying has occurred).
Teach your child to tell an adult (e.g., teacher) about any teasing or unwanted attention about their craniofacial differences. Contact the adults in charge of the setting where the teasing or bullying occurred to develop a prevention plan. If your child has an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP), talk with your child’s team about modifying it to address bullying, social skills, or peer support.
Monitor your child’s social media activities and accounts. You can report any cyber-bullying to platform administrators to remove content, block users, or delete accounts
Validate your child’s feelings and offer support.
- Tell your child that the bullying is not his/her fault.
- If you notice changes in your child’s mood, behavior, or have concerns that they may be thinking about suicide or harming another child, consultation with a mental health professional is recommended.
For more information about the Cleft Lip and Palate Center at Nationwide Children's Hospital, click here.
If you or your child needs immediate help due to having suicidal thoughts, go to your local emergency room immediately, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or you can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.