If a child is hesitating about hugging an aunt he rarely sees, many parents might rush to correct what they perceive to be rudeness. However, a Rio Grande Valley expert is urging parents to reframe their thinking and use the situation as an opportunity to address touching and boundaries.
Personal boundaries are guidelines or limits that a person creates to identify reasonable, safe, and permissible ways for others to behave toward them and how they will respond when someone disregards those limits. Personal touch boundaries are the limits we set and feel comfortable with regarding the physical contact we allow others towards us. Teaching children about personal touch boundaries begins from day one — through modeling, setting examples, and age-appropriate education about safety and healthy relationships.
The conversation about personal touch boundaries begins way before we might think it does, according to Diane Myers, a local licensed professional counselor. It should not wait for middle school health class, and it should definitely be free of cultural biases. Myers says she believes we can and should start teaching children about personal touch boundaries from birth.
It is in the everyday small actions that we get to model and show respect. Myers says the way we act toward children begins teaching them about boundaries and respect, including our actions and behaviors, asking or having their consent to come into their space and before touching their bodies.
In practice, imagine an infant who cannot yet talk. Observe or remember the ways infants communicate constantly: sounds, facial expressions, or eye contact. Even if they don’t respond yet, we can, for example, talk to them and let them know what we are about to do. It doesn’t mean you should be on constant commentator mode, but even newborns are learning and processing language as we speak to them. Once there is language comprehension, then communicating and asking for permission should be routine in order to teach children about healthy personal touch boundaries and consent. This includes family gatherings and, yes, choosing whether they hug their tía.
“Don’t assume that you’re allowed to touch them,” Myers said regarding young children. This is especially applicable in non-verbal children who rely on behavior or other gestures to express their preference or comfort level. This is when parents and others should really tune in to the non-verbal cues a child demonstrates and respect them.
Myers emphasizes that we should allow children to choose whether they want to have physical contact with someone, including greetings, hugging, kissing, or playful tickling. Introducing kids to new people and environments, Myers adds, is an opportunity to teach them about personal touch boundaries and consent. We also shouldn’t bribe or pressure a child into forced consent.
How can we have those important conversations? With younger children, Myers suggests that a great way to introduce the subject and begin teaching about personal touch boundaries is through children’s books that address these issues.
“You can also just tell them,” she said. Even when children are not yet speaking, they may comprehend more than we can know. As adults, we sometimes undermine children’s abilities to grasp what we consider more complex concepts, but if we explain safety and personal touch boundaries at the child’s language and comprehension level, it may be a more effective approach than we think.
“Introduce the concept that secrets are not OK,” Myers said. Secrets are tools that child predators sometimes use to lure children in while keeping the family unaware. Teaching kids to eschew secrets is a powerful tool.
What are some red flags to look out for when children have had personal touch violations?
- Sleep disturbance
- Wetting and/or soiling pants when the child is already potty trained
- Aversion to certain people or places
- Instances of emotional dysregulation or intense tantrums when going somewhere or with someone
Statistically, child predators tend to be someone close, such as a family member. Some red flags to look out for in suspected adults are:
- An adult who prefers the company of children
- Someone who hovers close to kids and offers to take them for treats like ice cream
- Adults who are overly interested in spending time with children
Perpetrators are usually educated, charming, waiting for moments of isolation such as during parents’ divorce or in a single mother household.
How do we teach children to trust their intuitions when something feels off? For example, when the child predator is someone familiar who is suddenly approaching the child in an inappropriate way, the child may experience confusion and feel unsure of how to interpret the behavior, setting the stage for an unwanted interaction.
Speak to kids at their level and direct them to tune into their body and the sensations they experience when something feels wrong, Myers says. It may be any situation where an encounter made the child uncomfortable or upset.
“You can say, ‘what is your body telling you?’” Myers said. “They know words like ‘yucky,’ or ‘I don’t like it.’” She also advises adults to pay attention when kids dislike being with others, and to pervasive tantrum-like or negative emotionality.
A few children’s books to introduce the concept of consent and personal touch boundaries include:
It is difficult to explain the importance of teaching children about personal touch boundaries and consent, and difficult perhaps to break our own personal or cultural habits that go against instilling safe practices in our children. Invite yourself, your family, and other loved ones to respect your child’s choices about personal touch. Learn to not take it personally, for example, if your toddler did not want to hug his grandmother today or completely ignored your partner before leaving to work. You may offer alternatives such as a handshake, blowing a kiss, or just a wave, but only accept enthusiastic consent — never force a behavior. Children have the right to give consent and to have their choices respected.
Think about it—if an adult did not want to hug someone, would you make him or her do it? Would you surprise an adult with a tickling attack? These thoughts may sound silly, but teaching, modeling, and respecting our children’s personal touch boundaries and consent is not a responsibility to take lightly, and it begins with us and the examples we set daily.