Children are attuned to signals from their parents and other adults in their lives (adult family members and friends, teachers, school administrators, and medical professionals such as doctors and nurses), and will internalize any hint of disapproval or anxiety. If size is a focus of concern, children are likely to pick up on it and as a result, may develop lower self-esteem.
Short children can learn to cope with social prejudice with the help of a supportive network of the adults in their lives. Adults can show their support by following the guidelines listed below.
- Accept children as they are. Children who feel accepted are more resilient. They tend to handle all types of adversity better. Children need to hear that they are perfect just the way they are.
- Resist the urge to juvenalize shorter children (relate to them as if they were younger than their age). Having lower expectations for some children may cause them to respond with clowning or aggression. To prevent such reactions, treat short children based on their chronological age, rather than the age they appear.
- Make a conscious effort not to be overprotective. It is important that children learn to become more independent as they grow older, and their experience of their level of independence comes from comparison with other children of the same age.
- Avoid focusing on physical appearance. Don’t use affectionate diminutives such as “squirt”, “little man,” “kid” or “you’re such a cute little girl/boy.” Also, measuring children’s height and marking it on a door frame will likely bring on more anxiety if the distance between marks appears too small. There is absolutely no need to obsessively gather this statistical data. No one cares.
- Focus on character. When children are overly focused on physical appearance, emphasize the importance of having an interesting and pleasant personality and good character traits such as integrity, creativity and kindness.
- Encourage involvement in a variety of activities, including sports and intellectual pursuits. Short stature is not a handicap and there have been many literary, musical, athletic and historical figures who have achieved great success despite being short. Participation in sports, school activities and clubs help instill a sense of community and belonging.
- Don’t organize kids by size. Teachers and gym coaches often line up the kids by height or send kids to the back of the line as punishment. Children are often lined up based on height for class pictures. Organizing kids by size seems an overly trivial way to achieve an appealing visual effect, but kids view it as a humiliating pecking order that raises awareness of the hierarchy of size.
- Cultivate coping skills. When height discrimination is encountered, take advantage of the “teaching moments” just as you would when encountering prejudice related to race, gender or physical disabilities. Role-playing exercises can help children learn to cope with teasing and name-calling. Encourage the child to use words to show that they were not affected by the insult. Most of the time, the bullies will never bother the child again if they see that the child was not easily intimidated.
- Intervene in bullying incidents. When conflicts exacerbate into something more serious than just calling someone “shorty” or “fatso,” parents, school administrators and teachers should intercede rather than stand back and let the children “figure it out.” While it may be natural for bigger children to dominate smaller ones, the adults are supposed to be there to help children learn that aggression is not a socially acceptable way to get what you want.
- Seek professional help when needed. Sometimes a child who may be having particular difficulty dealing with social stigma could benefit from receiving short-term counseling.