It’s not just teenagers that fight stubborn acne. Parents are at the brunt of their frustrations with limited expert support. Here, Jack Wynn speaks with two mothers about how they’ve supported their children through the fight, and what resources are available during the pandemic
Aside from the occasional blog post or advice page from skincare manufacturers, it’s hard to find constructive support out there if you’re a parent watching your child struggle with acne and going through crippling anxiety.
An analysis of 42 acne studies recently published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology (JAMA) also supports the link between acne and depression. Although there is a stronger link with adults, the condition affects 85% of teenagers and researchers say acne should be recognised as a mental health concern.
One mother knows all too well about living with severe acne, in addition to supporting her own child through the same process. Karen*, a secondary school teacher from Hertford, Hertfordshire, supported her daughter through the struggle but also suffered with the condition herself. “I remember being very aware that I looked at my face in the mirror once,” says Karen. “I think I would have been about 12 or 13. Then it really, really escalated and we’re talking the whole sides of my face, my back, my chest, it got to the point where it wasn’t even individual spots. It was just awful. I was obsessed with it; as far as I thought, it was the first thing that anybody ever saw. Let’s be truthful: it is.”
Feeling isolated as none of her friends had the condition, acne was still a significant part of Karen’s life even after finishing school. “I still had it [acne] when I went to university,” says Karen. “The very first or second day I met my best friend. She had acne and we talked about it sometime afterwards and it was a bonding thing. It was one of the first things we noticed about each other.”
I was obsessed with it; as far as I thought, it was the first thing that anybody ever saw. Let’s be truthful: it is
Her daughter also started developing acne in her teens. At first, Karen didn’t say anything and waited for her daughter to initiate the conversation, but as time went on, there was a clear change in self-esteem. She recalls one incident with a physics teacher during her daughter’s A levels. “It was one of the few times I interfered as I’m a teacher myself,” says Karen. “[He] made fun of her for the amount of makeup she wore. You don’t have any right to make any comment on a kid’s appearance anyway; I would never, ever do that, it’s so unprofessional and teenagers are at the most vulnerable anyway. But that was horrible, it made her not want to go to his lessons.”
She ended up quitting her physics A level, and this spurred Karen to take further action. “When I went into the doctors as a very assertive person, I went in with my facts because I knew that people had been fobbed off with, ‘Oh, it’s just her age, she’ll grow out of it’. I went in saying, ‘I know this is available, or we could try this’ and ‘would you please’ and the doctor did as I asked them to do.”
Her daughter now has a successful career and leads a happy life. There is still, however, some insecurity about her skin. “I’ve never been allowed to tag my daughter in Facebook pictures or anything like that, unless I run it past her, and it started with the acne,” says Karen. She also has lived with her own insecurities even after the acne stopped; wearing foundation is still used as a mask due to the emotions of acne still living with her, but Karen says she’s becoming more confident in going out barefaced. Karen’s advice to other parents going through similar situations: “Listen, and never, ever say ‘don’t be so silly!’ If somebody is worried or frightened by anything, it’s real to them. Telling someone to not be so silly isn’t going to help, is it? They are worried about it, so you’ve got to listen, take it seriously.”
Alison Newman, a support worker from Romford, Essex, also knows the painful struggle of supporting a child with severe acne, particularly as a single parent coping with the stress all by herself. When her son started to develop acne at the beginning of secondary school, there wasn’t much need for concern until its severity worsened over a short time. She says parents have to be persistent in trying to get the answers and support they need. “The support from doctors is there, but only if you’re the type of person to push for a referral to a specialist”, says Alison. “[Acne] is not seen as important enough as it’s not medical but cosmetic in their opinion, which I think is completely wrong.”
The support from doctors is there, but only if you’re the type of person to push for a referral to a specialist
Alison’s advice is simple, but effective. “Don’t give up! Go to see the doctor and get the medication that is needed. You have to push for help and don’t let anyone fob you off with the typical ‘it’s just teenage skin and they will grow out of it’ excuse.”
The counsellor perspective
Parents can often feel they are highlighting an issue when talking to their children, which can compound them to be self conscious. They feel they are juggling a practical solution in helping their child with self care, or seeking medical help in some cases, while at the same time they try to get their children to a point where they do not focus too heavily on the demands of appearance. “A lot of parents express struggling with knowing how to connect with and help their teens,” says Victoria Browne, a mindset coach who helps parents deal with their children’s acne, as well as adults suffering a loss of confidence as a result of childhood acne. “There is a fear of getting ‘it’ wrong, judgement by others and not allowing their child space to grow while supporting and guiding them.”
Victoria also says online counselling services for parents and children are a great way to find support, particularly during lockdown and obvious straints. “The NHS counselling services are stretched between 8-12 week waiting lists, and many GP’s prescribe medication for mental health issues rather than therapeutic services,” says Victoria. “Many online counselling services are great especially for busy, time short people so that hasn’t changed during lockdown. Some parents I have as clients have also reported a closer connection with their teens during lockdown, having greater conversations with both time and depth.”
Jerilee Claydon has a unique perspective. As a psychotherapist, she suffers with acne herself and worries her children, aged three and five, will suffer with the same issues. In particular, she claims her three-year-old son has “identical” skin to her. “Even while he is only three years old, I’m looking at options for him and how to protect him from acne,” says Jerilee. She recognises the lack of empathy towards acne associated with GPs and suggests parents need more access to education. “[Parents] need to know how to treat acne at its first signs. If it’s managed early on and treated appropriately inside and out, there is a much better chance of managing it. Diet, products, treatments, and medication all need to be considered.”
Affordable lockdown counselling services
*Accredited by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP).
Ella Tekdag: Ella specialises in helping young people and children cope with the pressure of modern society influenced by social media to improve self-esteem. An initial one-hour session is £40 and she is currently holding counselling sessions via Skype and Zoom (T: 07787 537608/E: firstname.lastname@example.org/W: ellatekdag.com)
Gillian Reid: Gillian first studied social and child psychology in her bachelor’s degree and uses the method of psychodynamic therapy, where clients can understand the root cause(s) of their issues. Sessions start at £50 and provides both telephone and online counselling (T: 07501 674689/W: gillianreidcounselling.com)
Phil Martin: Phil has more than 15 years’ experience working with children and families and can help with key areas including stress, anxiety, self-esteem and depression. Online and telephone counselling are available and sessions start at £40 (T: 07789 072592/E: email@example.com/W: sojourn.org.uk)
Helen Brown: As an integrative counsellor, merging different psychotherapy methods together, Helen specialises in working with children and adults to explore how early life and previous relationships could impact current behaviours and self-esteem. Telephone and online counselling are available throughout the pandemic and sessions start at £50 (T: 07580425305/E: firstname.lastname@example.org/W: helenbrowncounselling.co.uk)
•Editorial note: As requested by the interviewee, we have not used her surname to protect the identity of her daughter, following clause 2 (privacy) of the IPSO Editors’ Code of Practice.