Teaching Kids Body Boundaries
Written by Kristin Tallackson, M.A., LPC (OH), LPC Intern (TX)
Imagine you are getting ready to leave when grandma reaches down and kisses their grandchild. Your child accepts the kiss but as soon as they get in the car, they express their strong dislike for grandma’s kisses. You feel conflicted on what to say. You don’t want to hurt grandmas feelings, but you also want to make your kid feel comfortable. This is a common situation and a perfect open door to begin talking to your child about their body boundaries and consent.
Teaching our children that our bodies belong to us and we have the final say of what we do with our bodies fosters opportunities to understand what boundaries are and how to apply them. So what are body boundaries? Body boundaries are invisible and personal sets of rules that help us define what appropriate and inappropriate touches are. Defining our boundaries help create a sense of ‘self’. We become aware of our own rights and how we should be treated by others. Clear boundaries give us control and choice over what happens to us and our bodies.
Here are five ways to teach children about body boundaries, taken from Fractus Learning psychologist Racehele Davis:
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 they touch our private parts and tell us why.
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.
2. Demonstrate and model the respect for other children and adults
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. In these moments it’s important to 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 essential. 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.
4. Talking to our children about the different types of people in their lives
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 behavior 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.
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.