How Should an Au Pair Explain Visible Scars to Host Kids?

by cv harquail on July 8, 2017

Each of us bears scars from life events that have challenged us.

1796910818_5010a4d289_mSome of these scars are hidden, and allow us to keep their origins private.  Other scars are in plain sight, and their visibility raises the possibility that at some point, we won’t be able to keep their origins to ourselves.

I have a 7-inch scar curving down the left side of my neck that (before my wrinkles began to cover it) kindof looked Frankensteinian. It’s from surgery to remove a tumor.

When the scar was new, one of my daughter’s friends was fascinated by it, and asked me to tell her about it.  Not like I wanted to explain having a tumor removed or anything…but since I couldn’t think of a funny way to brush off her question, I told her I’d had an operation to remove a lump in my neck. A few months later when I was sick with a sore throat and this child came over for a play date, she got worried that I might die from neck sickness.

In spite of how I’d explained my scar, this maybe-8-year-old was still worried for me. Sweet of her, of course, but I was sad to have induced that concern into her world.

I’ve been thinking about this situation since I got the email, below, from an Au Pair with some visible scars.

The Au Pair’s scars are from an old illness, one from which she’s fully recovered, but also from an illness that’s hard to explain to kids.  She’s been wearing long sleeves to hide the scars, but now that the weather’s so hot she needs to show her arms — and also show her scars.

Assuming that her host kids will notice her scars, how can she prepare to explain them to the girls?

Dear Au PairMom —

I am a 20 year old au pair. I have been with my host family for almost 3 months and I feel so at home. I feel like I’ve come into another family to call my own, and I adore the kids! We have a really good connection, all of us in the family.

When I was interviewing with the family, I disclosed in my application that a few years ago, when I was about 13/14, I struggled with self harm. I was very clear in the application that this was in the past, and that I am fully recovered and have never felt better in my life. My host parents were very supportive and stated that they would never ask me to cover my scars etc.  The scars are not super visible, but they are small, white, and over my inner forearm.

I am in the Northeast US, where the weather is getting really hot and humid. I’m not sure how much longer I can keep wearing long sleeves. My host kids also go to the pool every day and they are begging me to go in the pool with them.

My question is, what is the most appropriate way to explain my scars to the kids? They are three girls ages 8, 10, 13.

Please give me advice!


Image: Aiko, by impermeableazul on Flickr


Taking a Computer Lunch July 8, 2017 at 8:55 pm

While the 8 and 10 year-old may not have classmates with self-injurious behavior, it’s quite likely that the 13-year-old does. Get advice on age appropriate explanations. For the 8-year-old the answer may simply be, “Why do you want to know?” For the 13-year-old, it may be more like “I wasn’t very happy with myself (or my life) and I hurt myself. It was a very bad time in my life and I wish I had told my parents how I felt. I could have got help.” Be clear that the scars do not physically hurt now – that may be their biggest concern. The bottom line – don’t explain anything until they ask, but have your answer lined up before they do! (And you can get SPF long-sleeved swim shirts in the US, so you may go swimming with the HK regardless!)

AuPair Paris July 9, 2017 at 2:40 am

I have some quite nasty self harm scars myself and when I was an au pair I wasn’t comfortable enough to explain them to the kids, so I just said “it’s a long story” and “it’s private”. My host parents backed me and told the kids that if someone says something is private, you don’t ask any more about it.

Now I work in Child Protection I am glad of this. Unfortunately self harm is (bizarrely) rather contagious. That is to say, it’s not a coping mechanism that many people find on their own, but if it becomes glorified it spreads. We find that, in schools, one person will begin to self harm, and then so will their friends – it spreads like wildfire, because it is taken so seriously. Teenagers who are very unhappy, and who feel that no one understands their feelings witness their friends being taken seriously, and they see self harm as a way to facilitate that.

I don’t know how things are in the US, but in the UK funding has been cut for mental health services to an extreme degree, and mental illness is ignored, even in children, unless there’s an immediate risk of harm. There may be two children with the same symptoms, but if one self harms and the other has different coping mechanisms, the second will not be seen by a professional and the first will. In addition to this, questionnaires when you are seen by a professional will ask questions like “have you ever required stitches?” – which gives kids the impression that they must make the self harm worse in order to be taken seriously. This adds to the impression that if you self harm (severely), people will understand how bad you’re feeling and if you don’t, people will think it’s not serious.

Because of this, I’d be extremely careful about how I speak to children about self harm. It’s incredibly important to remind them that they can speak up about their feelings, and they will be taken seriously without having to “prove” how bad they’re feeling. With younger children, who may not understand that distinction, and who will not necessarily recognise the scars for what they are, I’d avoid the subject – and simply say it’s private. I might speak to the older girl in the way I mentioned above. Be guided by the parents, but also share your experience of self harm with them, as they may not know the feelings and motivations behind it.

Apologies for the long post – it’s something I’ve dealt with and something I deal with frequently at work as a safeguarding/child protection officer.

TexasHM July 9, 2017 at 1:50 pm

Have you asked the host parents? I know you say they are supportive but have you had this conversation with them? If not I would do that first because they may not want you to go into detail or they may not care at all. Then you can decide how much you are comfortable sharing. If it was me, I’d likely ask our AP not to share that it was self inflicted/over time because mine wouldn’t understand and that would lead to lots more questions. I’d likely tell our AP just to say “it got cut a long time ago – you know how when you cut your chin and had to get stitches?” and downplay it/act like it’s not a big deal/worth much conversation.

We do similar with other topics like when APs leave we throw them a going away party, act like it’s no big deal they are leaving and we will see them again etc and the kids go right along. I know you are hypersensitive to it and understand why, just saying you might actually find the kids don’t notice or notice but don’t ask or notice but just ask something simple “is that a scar?” (Yes). “Cool! I have a scar on my knee too see? Can I have a cookie?” and move on…etc. So I’d ask the HPs, go swim like nothing is out of the ordinary and then share what is age appropriate/necessary and nothing more.

Anonymous in CA July 9, 2017 at 2:51 pm

I really agree with the prior comments – don’t bring the children into the adult world. We get scars for all kinds of reasons and while they serve as a reminder of something for the OP, the children don’t need to be exposed to that unless the parents decide to have the discussion – it’s got to be the parents. I have had to remind several prior APs what’s appropriate to discuss in front of my child and what’s not. This is a matter of using adult judgment and common sense – some issues are inappropriate for children and if this were my child, I would not want the AP to discuss it with him.

TexasHM said it well…
Host Kid: what are those marks on your arms?
AP: Some scars. Are you ready to [go swimming / have snack / play soccer, etc.]?
HK: sure, how’d you get the scars?
AP: It was an accident years ago. They totally don’t hurt now, but I do need to put sunblock on them. Do you have any scars? We should put sun block on yours too.

Someone July 10, 2017 at 9:57 am

Totally agree with the comments above.
I would advise not to worry too much about the kids seeing those scars. In my experience very little people actually notice those kind of scars for what they are and/or will ask about them.
As this might be something especially the oldest one has seen or heard of before, why not take your experience as an asset. If it comes up and depending on what the host parents think it might be the best thing to just have a conversation about the whole story because secrets often make things more attractive and exciting in a way and at least for me 75% of the people that ever asked about my scars were people that in someway had experience with this topic.
Another option might be to make up a weird story. One of my friends has a huge scar on her forehead and tells the kids that she got it from fighting a dragon in Asia. The kids then get more interested in dragons than in the actual scar even though they never believe that there are real dragons =). Another friend with “self-harm experience” tells a story about fighting a ninja and getting cut by his sword.
Obviously that depends on your personality and on how the host parents feel about it.
I personally do believe not making a secret out of those scars is the best way to go.

Mimi July 10, 2017 at 11:24 am

Since your HP are aware of your history, have the conversation with them about what they would like you to share or not share and ask them for their preferred approach to answering these questions.

Frankfurt AP boy July 12, 2017 at 7:04 pm

I have several scars and so do many others. I think it is no issue just to say “they are from surgery when I was sick”. I don’t see this is a particularly adult theme.

Mimi July 13, 2017 at 9:44 am

Surgical scars can still be scary for many children and explaining self harm scars is definitely an adult theme.

Frankfurt AP boy July 13, 2017 at 3:17 pm

Being scared at the idea of someone being operated on is surely problematic… most of us will be operated on in some time of our lives. I don’t think this is a reason not to tell a child what a scar is if asked. It is completely normal.

Mimi July 13, 2017 at 3:48 pm

Sorry, my post should have read “Surgical scars can still be scary for many children BUT explaining self harm scars is definitely an adult theme.” The OP is specifically talking about explaining scars from self-harm, not surgical or incidental injury scars.

Should be working July 17, 2017 at 5:33 am

I think you should not talk about self-harm. Much better to say (and only if asked!), “I had some cuts there once” and move on quickly. I would not say “It’s private”–because nothing gets kids (or anyone) more curious than that. I wouldn’t say anything at all if kids don’t raise the question.

AuPair Paris July 26, 2017 at 4:33 am

True about curiosity but depending on the age of the kids, and the feelings of the host parents, it can be a really good (unspoken) teachable moment about boundaries. My HPs were really big on teaching manners (which little kids don’t just come by naturally). The “it’s private” did make them curious, but if they asked more (the eldest two knew it would be rude already) I said “it’s private, that means it’s a story just for me, that I don’t want to tell!”. They then went away and almost certainly asked their parents, and their parents could deal with it how they wanted to.

I think it would help with situations in future where it would have been rude to ask questions of strangers in public. The girls often asked me things like “why did that man only have one leg?” or “why was he shouting in the street?!”, but they waited until a good moment and asked someone they trusted, who wasn’t involved – which I think is good! Interestingly, a few months later, the older girls were telling an embarrassing story about the youngest (6 yo) when she was a baby and she came out with “it’s private! It’s my story for me!” and the older girls just stopped. I was like “I’ve taught you so well!”

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