Procrastination is one of my vices, and I’m also an incurable people-pleaser who avoids conflict. So I can hardly blame my parents for these traits and I realise from personal experience that they will have felt a fair degree of inner turmoil over their failings.
In an earlier post, “Then I’ll ask Mum“, I wrote about my parents’ stonewalling when I asked them about the scar on my belly, the result of pyloric stenosis surgery less than two weeks after my birth. I realise now that my mother had been deeply traumatised not only by the surgery but also by what had preceded and followed it.
A family friend reminded me recently that mum hated violence and tragedy to the extent of shielding her litter from news reports of a Sydney train collision which I well remember as a 7 year old. Apparently mum would not let her children hear the radio news or see the newspaper reports. Small wonder she found it unbearable to talk about my surgery and engage with her schoolboy’s inquiring mind.
And dad? He was just too harried with work and heading for a stress breakdown which took him away for several weeks when I was 10; I know from experience that when I am stressed I defer dealing with additional tasks that are demanding. Quite human and understandable but not always sensible, especially when it affects the deep needs of your own children.
We know now how critical it is that children who have a disability or disfigurement have their parents’ perceptive help, especially during crucial stages of their growing up.
Research by psychologists and paediatricians has extended and deepened our understanding of this area since I was a child in the 1950s. It has been discovered that the physical discomforts and restrictions caused by a scar pale in comparison with its possible psychological and social effects. These outcomes have been found to be profound:
- The effect on self esteem and body image is most immediately understandable, especially as children and young people are still in the process of developing their self-image and confidence. Scars on the limbs and torso can reduce participation in sport such as gymnastics, swimming and football because of the need to undress and shower in public changing rooms. Scarred people may grow their hair longer than would be usual, and may avoid eye contact because of feelings of shame or embarrassment;
- Scars can cause social withdrawal and affect relationship building. Curious questions and insensitive comments often aggravate this. Some will find it hard to start new relationships, especially with the opposite sex. It is often suggested that “chick dig scars”, and in fact most people find scarring less offensive than interesting, but generalities rarely banish self-doubt. Shyness is a common result and reclusiveness sometimes the long-term effect.
- Less known but understandable effects include –
Students refusing to go to school and studying or working below their ability level;
Less success in job applications: the lack of confidence is as important as the potential employer’s reaction to their physical appearance;
Career choices are limited, with work such as modeling closed;
More people who have scars are unemployed than those who don’t have obvious blemishes.
- Depression: The distress of being scarred results in depression in some patients. This must be more widely recognized and better managed. Signs of depression include behaviour and/or sleep problems, sudden mood changes, sudden tears, lack of interest in food, lack of energy, and self-damaging or destructive talk and behaviour,
The psychological effects of physical scars can be very damaging not only during the person’s formative years. The list above will explain why the effects of scarring on a child and adolescent have lifelong consequences which scar treatment or counselling will struggle to reduce significantly.
The prevention or minimization of personal trauma and good therapy are vital for those who are significantly affected by their scarring or disfigurement, whether from congenital defects, surgery, accident or other trauma in their early years.
Infant surgery has troubled me and many others very significantly throughout our lives, and our parents’ lack of awareness of the various hazards of infant surgery and their resultant failure to help their children were I believe largely responsible. Next week I’ll give some reasons for this.
I know how important it is to encourage and help the parents of afflicted children to give their children the life-changing help they need so much. More about the essential role of parents next week.