It should not surprise us that parents will either help or hinder their child coming to terms with their surgery and/or their obvious imperfection as a baby.
As mentioned in the previous post, my parents fell sadly and badly short in this regard, both by sins of commission and omission. I say this not to diminish the love, affection and deep respect I have always had for my Mum and Dad, but to underline the importance of this post. What’s more, my parents were far from alone in their failure to help me understand and accept myself: the parents of several of the people with whom I have corresponded in recent years had similar problems with similar effects. I’m quite sure these parents did not realize they were adding to their child’s trauma – let alone intending this.
So there’s much we can learn about the vital role of the parents of scarred children scarred by an accident or early surgery. Everything I have written is commonsense and (sad to say) based on what others and I have actually experienced.
The Basic principle: Respect your child
This should be obvious but often it’s apparently not.
Take the initiative: As soon as your child shows they are becoming conscious of their disability, disfigurement, or scarring, take the time and create the opportunity to talk with your child. Continue to do this from time to time to help your child build their understanding and to monitor their emotional development. But be age-aware and don’t overwhelm a young child with information beyond what they can handle.
I have been amazed by the number of people whose web comments tell us they do not know the cause of their surgical scar; the scar’s appearance and sometimes a sketchy story they were given helps us to suggest the probably reason for their surgery. Surely, all of us should know important details of our life story!
Take your child’s questions seriously, so build their confidence in you by taking time immediately to answer their questions as fully as you can, or promise to do so later if their questions catch you unprepared or at an unsuitable time.
Put yourself in your child’s place, so
never make light of your child’s story or feelings,
don’t exaggerate or dramatize (with lurid “funny” stories) what happened,
be frank, truthful and factual,
make sure you don’t let your own feelings dominate your memories of what you tell your child; and
never talk about your child’s issues publicly, let alone to “amuse” and adult audience.
Make yourself a little more vulnerable by asking your child, Have I answered your questions? Is there anything else you’d like to know? Allow your child to decide of how much you tell them: it will build their confidence and trust.
Keep whatever you can to help your child embrace the reality of their disfigurement at birth, and/or what happened when they had their lifesaving or disfigurement-reducing surgery. Make photos before and after, keep their medical records, your notes, diary or journaling entries, and anything else that may be of value or interest later. Allow your child to choose to value, reject or discard such keepsakes.
Help your child address their passive role. Their having no say in their having surgery and their total non-involvement and ignorance of it will often have damaging results. Because infant surgery is lifesaving and all-too-often urgent and sometimes careless, and its disfiguring damage is magnified by the child’s growth, it can also leave sensitive people with complex feelings of resentment towards the medical profession and /or their parents. Disfigurement and disability evoke many of these emotions also. Such damaged children need much support to overcome their understandable lack of self-confidence, passivity, or victim mentality, and to accept their story with their mind, heart and emotions.
Since writing this blog, I came across a more recent post by Danelle Townsend in which she illustrates (to my thinking) a beautiful and seamless blend of Christian faith, a mother’s love, openness and sensitivity, and the nurture her son would need.
Svea Vikander is a Toronto-based writer, artist and photographer. Take a look at her work, Life Lines. In an interview reported in this introductory blog, she spells out for us the key to her wonderfully positive attitude to her abdominal scar from early surgery:
I think that the lines in our palms are just like the any other scars or lines on our bodies that tell stories about ourselves. The story about the large scar on my stomach began when I was only three months old. I had problems with my stomach and had to be rushed to hospital. I almost died but I survived the surgery. From then onwards, if I ever wanted to be reassured of love, I would ask my mother about the operation and she would tell the story of how she almost lost her first born child. The scar reminds me of how special I am to my parents and how lucky I am to be alive.