Written by Rachele Davis, Provisional Psychologist and Chiu Lau, Principal Psychologist.
Imagine that yourself and your family are just preparing to leave a friend’s home after having dinner. Your friend kneels to say goodbye to your child, gives them a hug and kisses them on the cheek. Your child accepts this quietly but as soon as you get into the car your child mentions to you how they hate it when your friend hugs and kisses them and wishes they would stop.
This is one of the common situations that remind us why it is so important to teach our children about body boundaries and what to do in situations that take them out of their comfort zone. It may seem trivial and petty however, planting the seed that our bodies belong to us and we have the final say of what we do with our bodies create opportunities to (a) understand what healthy boundaries are and (b) how to enforce them. These are the seeds that ensure development of strong protective factors for children which assist with keeping them safe.
Be sure that all of our body boundary conversations and lessons always finish on a positive note.
A body boundary is an invisible and personal set of rules that define what is a ‘good’ touch and a ‘bad’ touch and the types and amount of touching the child is comfortable with.
These boundaries are important because they help with defining the ‘self’. Once we define our own boundaries, we may become more aware of our own rights and how we deserve to be treated by others. Over time, we may also develop a clearer picture of our own needs, desires and limits and when we may need to seek help. Clear boundaries also help us be aware of what we are responsible for and that it is important to know our own limitations. Ultimately, boundaries also give us choices and control over what happens to us and our bodies.
Here are five tips in setting effective body boundaries with our children:
1. Talk to your children about body boundaries and body safety
It is important to start this conversation early and begin teaching our children about body safety. This conversation could begin by introducing ‘special’ parts of your body (the parts covered by your swim suit) that should be kept private. Let’s explain to our children that sometimes we need help with tasks related to our bodies such as bathing or seeing a doctor. A parent or doctor might sometimes touch those private parts to clean or check them to ensure they are healthy. A parent or Doctor should always ask for permission before their touch our private parts and tell us why eg. I am going to clean your bum now so that it is healthy. I am going to check your ears now to make sure it is clean.
It is important that we use the right words for body parts so that they learn that their private parts are just like their feet and legs. Use formal terms such as ‘vagina’ and ‘penis’ in conjunction with informal names for body parts they may hear while out of the home, such as, boobies and breasts. Utilize everyday moments for these conversation, such as, bath time, or when you are assisting your child to dress.
Picture books can be another very helpful tool for teaching our children about the differences between boys and girls bodies and how they change as they grow into adults. We can ensure that this conversation is on-going with our children and continues to evolve appropriate to their developmental stage.
2. Demonstrate and model the respect for other children and adults
It is important to remember that our children watch and learn from us and our interactions with other people. This is why it is integral to be respectful of other adults and children and model good boundaries to our children. When children see their trusted adults yelling, screaming or getting physical with another person, we are teaching them that violence is an effective way to communicate and get what you want.
It is important to understand that there will be times when we feel rightfully upset with another adult in the presence of children. During these times, it becomes absolutely integral for us to deal with the conflict calmly with respect for the other persons thoughts, feelings and body. It will be important to remain aware of our facial expressions (try to keep it calm and neutral), body posture (relaxed, non-threatening) and tone of voice (calm, even tone and pace) during this time.
Let’s model to our children that we never, ever use our bodies to hurt other people’s bodies AND other people are NOT allowed to use their bodies to upset us too.
3. Talk to our children about personal space and privacy
Talking to our children about their own and other people’s personal space and privacy is integral. It is important they understand that everyone is the boss of their own bodies and get to make the choices about what they do with them.
Our children need to be aware that they get to decide if and who they share hugs and kisses with and if they would like someone to stop tickling them, they can do so immediately. Parents and adults should not try to dictate these decisions for child, for example, whether or not they kiss Grandma our family friends hello/ goodnight. The child should be allowed to decide whether or not they would like to kiss, hug or high five someone else. We can say “You can do whatever feels most comfortable for you.”
It is important, to avoid potentially offending relatives and friends, that our children be taught polite ways to say no, such as, “No thank you”. We can also teach them to hold out their hand for a hand shake or offer a high five instead. We can make our families aware that we are teaching our child basic personal safety skills about their body, including ways to navigate the offer of unwanted touches.
We need to be comfortable having a dialogue with our children about comfortable, uncomfortable and unwanted touches. Behaviours can be OK or not OK, depending on circumstances. Hence, it is important our child knows that a doctor, with mummy or daddy present, might need to check all of their body parts, not just the parts they feel comfortable sharing with the public.
We can also teach them that is ok to accept a hug from a friend if they are comfortable with it but never from a stranger. A good rule of thumb is that any person should not touch a child’s private parts unless it is to keep them clean (washing in bath) or keep them healthy (Doctor checking a child with parent present). Visual supports can be useful for the child in helping them understand these differences if they are little or if they present with a developmental or intellectual disability.
4. Talking to our children about the different types of people in their lives
It is important our children know how to distinguish close people in their young lives. In order to effectively teach this, you need to define different types of people for your child’s life. This may include family (the people that live at home with me), extended family (the people that are family but do not live in my house, e.g. Grandma and Grandpa), Friends (the people who care about me that I care about and know very well and trust), Acquaintances (the people whose name I know and I see occasionally e.g. family friend), Teachers and helpers (the people who teach me at school or help me with things e.g. Classroom aid or sports coach), Servers (the people who work in shops serving customers) and strangers (the people I don’t know).
It can be useful to explain this using visuals and social stories to show our children the closest and the furthest people in their lives. Family should be closest and strangers should be the furthest away. We can ask our child about who they believe falls into each category from their life. We can also ask them about what sort of behaviour they think is OK for each type of person, e.g. which people would be ok to kiss or hug and who should be trusted and who should not.
5. Teach our children how to say “No” to other children and adults
It is important that children understand they are able to say “no thanks” to an offer of a hug or a kiss from both children and adults AND that they are not expected to always accept them. Teaching our child that they are able to say no can be very empowering for them as they begin to exercise and assert their wants, needs and desires to the rest of the world.
If a child is only taught to say “yes” and please others, this can increase their susceptibility to different forms of abuse. Imagine if the child is with an adult they do not feel comfortable with. We would hope that our child will feel confident enough to say “no” should they be invited to engage in activities that make them feel uncomfortable.
It is important to practice the skill of assertion and saying “no” with our child. Role play with them; ask them for a kiss or a hug and have them practice saying “no thank you” in a firm and confident voice.
Social stories can also be useful for teaching our children to say no. Ask the child what would they do in each different situations and guide them on what would be the best course of action. These social stories should vary in the risk presented to the child. For example, if a stranger stops you in the street and asks you to go with them, what would you do? It is important our children learn that they are the ultimate authority over what happens to their bodies, hence, they have the right to say no at any point in time. This is something we’d want our teenage daughters to feel most comfortable doing, correct? Therefore, the seed of body ownership needs to be planted early.
Be sure that all of our body boundary conversations and lessons always finish on a positive note and that our children know that they are allowed to ask questions about anything.
Topics that include inappropriate touching can seem intimidating for adult and child. Let’s ensure that we include that giving and receiving hugs and kisses from people we know and love can be wonderful. We do not want to teach our children that all touching is bad. Let’s teach them about different types of touching and which are appropriate.
It is important to never shy away from a question from children which may seem strange or challenging. Children may become embarrassed if we react negatively to their question and not ask any further questions. They should be encouraged to ask any all questions they have about their bodies and receive an answer without being made to feel uncomfortable about it.
Feature image courtesy of Flickr, nadi0.