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Body Safety—Teaching our Children to Set Boundaries and Giving Them Tools to Enforce Them

For generations, it seems that great emphasis has been put on a parent’s responsibility to have “the talk” with their children. You know, “the birds and the bees” one? However, a talk that is equally, if not more important, is that of bodily autonomy. And contrary to what many parents might think, this is a talk that should take place early on. It’s also a discussion that should remain open because as children get older, it’s inevitable that they will have questions. It’s also foreseeable that boundaries regarding their bodies will change.

If you’re wondering how to explain bodily autonomy to your young children, it may be easier than you think. Children, even small ones, have boundaries. As trusted adults, we need to be aware of those boundaries and help our children communicate them. For example, if an adult wants to give your child a hug, but your child is not comfortable doing so, you can arm your child with ways to say no and then give them alternate ways to express affection. Rather than giving a hug, your child can blow a kiss, shake the person’s hand, or give a high-five. This may feel unnatural in the beginning, but by encouraging your child to express his or her boundaries, you are giving them the tools to express those boundaries in situations that could potentially be dangerous to them and their bodies.

Another scenario to discuss with your children, is how to express boundaries even with people they consider “safe”, like a parent, grandparent, or close friend. While a child may feel completely safe with these people, there may be times when children still feel the need to exercise control over their bodies. This is completely normal and a great opportunity to further empower our children to communicate when something makes them feel unsafe or uncomfortable. Here’s an example that we deal with in our house: it’s not uncommon for my husband to wrestle or rough play with our children, ages 3 and 5.  Typically, they love it. It’s one of their favorite things to do. But what happens when it’s no longer fun for them and they want the rough housing to stop? As soon as they communicate that they no longer want to engage in that type of play, they know they simply have to say “stop” or can even just disengage, and their dad will respect that boundary.

While the examples I’ve given may seem simple, these are small ways we can help our children exercise their bodily autonomy and communicate boundaries. When a child knows they are in control of their body, they are less likely to fall victim to sexual abuse. When we force our children to give a hug or hold hands with a friend, we may actually be teaching them that it’s okay for other people to force them to do what makes them comfortable, regardless of how our child feels about it. It’s vital that we keep in mind that intuition and gut feelings are not exclusive to adults. Our children have those feelings too and we must help them not only acknowledge those feelings, but trust them as well. This starts with simple interactions like an unwanted hug or unwanted rough play.

I encourage you to begin having conversations about body control with your children, no matter their age. Explain to them that they are in complete control of their body and if something makes them feel uncomfortable, they have the right to say no.  Use proper terms for body parts and let them know there is no shame surrounding those words. This will further help your children verbalize their boundaries and will hopefully give them the confidence to alert a parent or safe adult if a boundary is ever crossed.  So please, start the conversation today. It may not be the “birds and the bees” talk, but it’s still one that must be had. We owe it to our children.