Dealing with other people’s reactions of a burn injury

This section covers:

  • Having visible burn injuries and scars
  • Worrying about other people’s reactions
  • Dealing with other people staring and asking questions
  • When children ask about burns
  • Approaches to other people’s reactions over time

People with burn injuries may look and feel different to other people because of their wounds, scars or lost limbs. Some of the people we spoke to had experienced comments, questions and staring from others, or they worried about this happening. It made some people feel judged when strangers stared and asked questions, even if other people did not mean to be unkind.

Having visible burn injuries and scars

Recent burn injuries could be very noticeable to others, as Rhian and India had found when their burns looked “red” and “raw”. Frazer, Tom and India said other people noticed their bandages.

Sinead found that other people had strong reactions to seeing her daughter heavily bandaged. A nurse encouraged her to dress her daughter or lie the clothes on top of the bandages.

Helen Y had worried that others would realise she was wearing a compression vest under her clothes, and Raffaella wore compression gloves which other people sometimes commented on. Over time some people, like Helen X, found that burn scars became paler and were less noticeable to others.

The people we spoke to who had burns in more visible places, such as on their faces or hands, told us that strangers sometimes stared at them or asked about their burns. Some, like Mercy, talked about their choice of clothing being important. Wearing more revealing clothes when it was hot, on holiday, and when going swimming or to the beach, for example, could mean that their burn injuries and scars were more visible to others.

Other people looking at or commenting on their burn scars made Tara and Saffron feel “out of control”. Raiche found it exhausting having comments and questions on a daily basis. Some people, like Tara and India, found that strangers would assume that they were “entitled” to know about the scars because they were on display. Whilst some people were happy to speak about their burns to strangers, others felt that doing so was reliving their trauma.

India thought people felt entitled to know why she had scars.

Some people felt lucky that they were able to cover their scars most of the time because they were in more discreet places, such as on their chest or back. Helen X  didn’t feel worried about her burn scars because they don’t “look obvious” and other people “can’t really notice” them. Frazer says his are “hidden enough” too.

Worrying about other people’s reactions

Some people were worried about what other people would think of their burn injuries and scars. Even when other people had been kind and respectful, the worry of something nasty being said or thought was very upsetting. Gary said the worry is sometimes “self-created”. Claire and Justyn both wished they didn’t feel worried and self-conscious about others’ reactions, but that it was hard not to feel this way. Abi didn’t speak to her friends much about her child’s burn for fear of judgement. Hadyn, Helen X, and Rhian also talked about not wanting other people’s sympathy or pity.

Haydn didn’t want people to feel sorry for him.

Natasha told us that when she went on nights out with friends, she wouldn’t feel comfortable showing her burns so she would buy outfits which covered her scars. Haydn told us that he would wear sunglasses more than usual whilst his facial burns were healing so that people didn’t ask him what had happened.

Worrying about whether they were going to be treated as a ‘normal’ person could make some people uncomfortable. Rhian described a time when she was made to feel like her burn experiences were an example for others about the dangers of hot water.

Gary sometimes talks about his experience as “a deterrent” to others, but feels it is important that this is his choice and he’s not made to feel like a source of entertainment for anyone.

For parents whose children had been burnt, like Holly and Chris X, other people noticing the burn injuries or scars could raise difficult feelings of blame and guilt. Sinead found it hard feeling that although she didn’t want to hide her daughter away, she also didn’t want other people to look and make comments.

Chris X appreciates that no one has said anything judgmental about his child’s burn circumstances to him, and instead there had been a “unified message” of understanding.

Dealing with other people staring and asking questions

There were various ways that the people we spoke to dealt with strangers staring at them or asking questions and making comments. Strategies in response to other people staring included choosing to ignore the person, smiling as a way to show the person looking has been noticed, or asking them directly, “Are you looking at my burn?”

Saffron explains her approach to dealing with people staring at her or asking questions.

When people made comments or asked questions, Tara and Tom both felt able to divert conversations away from the burn or simply tell people to stop asking about their burns. Raiche had a “script” which she used when people asked questions, based on what she had been asked many times before. Frazer found it sometimes helped to take control of the conversation and address the presence of the burn injuries before someone asked.

Some of the people we spoke to preferred it when people asked questions instead of staring and making assumptions. Saffron, Helen X and Charlotte said they would prefer to talk to them directly, rather than others make comments or “gossip” behind their backs. Charlotte felt that once she had spoken about her burns, or “the elephant in the room” as she referred to them, then it was “done and dusted and everyone can just carry on”. Haydn explained how he was “always appreciative of honesty and upfront questions”. He told us he felt “almost relieved” when someone asked him about his burns because it gave him a chance to explain himself.

When children ask about burns

Lots of the people we spoke to felt that children acted differently around their burns than adults did. Many people agreed that children have a natural curiosity towards people that look different and are more likely to ask blunt questions. Helen X appreciated this honesty and saw it as a learning opportunity: “kids are curious, they will ask, and I’d rather they did”.

As well as teaching her daughter how to cope with others’ reactions to her burn injuries, Sinead is also teaching her about how to be respectful of others’ differences.

Although many people told us that they preferred the honesty of children, a couple of people spoke about children being scared by their burn injuries and scars. Claire recounted her “worst situation” from childhood when a small child “screamed” at her scars. Hadyn explained how, shortly after he was burnt, he was worried that his children would feel scared when they saw his face.

Approaches to other people’s reactions over time

Some of the people we talked to found that initially there was a lot of interest in their burn injuries, but this interest then dropped off over time. Chris X found it a relief once all the important people in his life knew about his child’s burn so that he didn’t have to explain anymore.

When other people’s unwanted interest in the burn injuries and scars were unlikely to stop, some people felt that what mattered most was trying to have more control over their response and how it made them feel. Gary said he was initially more confrontational and that this has eased off over time. With time, Charlotte said she developed “a thicker skin” and has become more used to people looking at her.

Raiche told us that her approach to people staring or asking questions is to think positively and assume they are appreciating her make-up, outfit, or hairstyle.

A lot was said about how learning to cope with strangers’ reactions can be a “journey” and often “gets easier with time”. You can read more about experiences of adjusting to life with a burn here.

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