For many children, teaching bodily autonomy and boundaries at an early age results in an empowered child—one who feels confident in setting boundaries, saying “no,” and being in touch with their body.
To help your child learn about their body—and achieve healthy boundaries—begin talking with them at a young age. This helps to pave the way to transparent, honest, and direct communication as they age. It also helps your child understand when touch is dangerous or unsafe and feel comfortable speaking with a trusted adult about it.
Having these open conversations with your child is not only helpful for their own growth and development but studies find that it actually has a long-term effect. One study from the Duke University School of Nursing discovered that conversations with children about their bodies and about their sexuality at a young age resulted in lower chances of unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, and other risky sexual behaviors.
To empower your child to embrace healthy body boundaries, keep these tips in mind:
Ask your child for permission before touching them—and encourage them to do the same.
Communication around consent is a vital lesson that you can start teaching your child at a young age—preparing them for a future where they’re comfortable and confident navigating consent.
To start incorporating communication and consent into your child’s daily routines, ask permission from your child before you reach out for a hug. You can say something like, “Is it okay if I give you a hug?”
If your child is nonverbal, you can start by communicating your intent clearly and letting them know what you’re going to do. For example, you might say, “I’m going to put your shoes on, so you’re ready to go to the park.”
Be direct and transparent about body parts.
At a young age, the language you use about their body parts has a long-term impact on a child’s ability to communicate—and their relationship to their body overall.
Being open and honest about the anatomical words for body parts has a powerful impact on your child’s overall well-being. Avoid using cutesy or covert words to describe your child’s genitals. By using the anatomical words, you give your child permission to talk honestly about their body, their genitals, and avoid feelings of shame or discomfort.
Let your child know that they’re in control of their body.
Never force your child to accept hugs or unwanted physical content—even from relatives or immediate family members. If your child doesn’t want physical touch during greetings or goodbyes, affirm that this is perfectly okay and share different options they have: a high-five, waving, blowing a kiss, or simply saying hello or goodbye.
If your child is under the age of 5, now’s the perfect time to begin teaching them the 5 Body Safety Rules created by The Mama Bear Effect:
By teaching your child these rules, you’ll let them know at an early age that they are fully in control of their body—and this realization will lead them to grow more comfortable with saying “no” to physical touch and taking charge of their feelings and reactions.
Introduce children to when touch by others isn’t acceptable.
One in four girls and one in 13 boys experience child sexual abuse at some point during their childhood, according to research by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. To help your child understand acceptable and unacceptable touch, begin having conversations around these topics.
You might explain that touch from a parent or caregiver during a bath or a doctor performing an exam is okay—but outside of these scenarios, it’s not okay for an adult to touch their body or genitals. Helping your child understand these nuances at a young age lets them take control over their body and what’s acceptable.
As a parent or caregiver, talking openly about bodies and boundaries is a powerful and necessary process. In doing so, you’ll help build a strong bond with your child as well—so they’ll feel safe and confident coming to you with questions or concerns.
As you navigate these conversations with your child about healthy body boundaries, we recommend taking a look at the following resources:
Questions on helping your child navigate body boundaries? Let us know!
For additional resources and information and resources check out our previous post: Don’t Force the Hug