I said "no" : A child's constant struggle with asserting their physical boundaries
When I was pregnant I was struck by how all of a sudden my body was no longer my own. I am not referring to the changes but rather to how other people, total strangers, felt it was OK to touch my stomach without even asking. This is a phenomenon of pregnancy that many can relate to. Once I had my children, I realized that this doesn't end for them. From strangers in the grocery store who feel the need to touch my kids as they sit in the cart, or even more problematic, are snuggled close to me in their carrier. The violation of personal space that children go through daily is unbelievable to me.
As my children get older this shifts. Strangers don't touch them as much but family likes to put on the pressure. At family dinners my children are faced with a constant attempts at tickling, hugging ,kissing,etc. I know that these are all from a place of love for my kids. I get it. I too have to fight the urge to just grab them and hug and kiss them. They are sweet, lovable, and so adorable. I in no way am saying that these people have negative intentions. What I want to highlight is that even with good intentions, these behaviors on the parts of adults are problematic.
My husband and I have taught our kids to have a choice when it comes to who they touch and how they display affection. Just the other day my 3 year old said she didn't want to go dinner because she didn't want to have to interact with a certain family member because they invade her space (obviously not stated this way). I explained to her that she can simply say "no thank you" to them and if she needs assistance asserting herself I will be there. Frustratingly half the plan worked. I was around for the first attempt to tickle her and was able to assert boundaries for her. About 30 minutes later my husband witness the next attempt at overstepping her boundaries. Then of course there was the good bye in which another family member gave her guilt for not wanting to give hugs or kisses to say goodbye.
I am often exhausted after these family events trying to help my kids maintain their right for personal boundaries (imagine how my kids feel!). I am also blown away at the adults who don't respect them. I understand that different generations have different beliefs about children and what rights they have (and what is expected of them), but a child's desire to not be tickled, hugged, or kissed, is not to be taken personally. Imagine being treated this way by others constantly. Maybe you aren't in the mood for hugs or are tired and just want to be left alone. You would be wanting your space too!
You may be wondering why I even think this is a big deal. The big deal comes from my desire to allow my kids to choose what happens to them and their right to boundaries and space. I want my children to know what makes them comfortable or uncomfortable. I want them to know that they don't have to hug/kiss anyone, even family members, if they don't want to. I want them to practice saying "no thank you" so that when they are older they can use those same skills with peers. I want them to respect other people's boundaries and right to space.
Think about the repercussions for children that haven't learned healthy boundaries and that have been forced to physically interact or show affection to people. Imagine how easy it would be for an adult to convince a child to do the most unimaginable physical acts. How can they say no when the message they were sent from the time they were born has been that you have to because you are being asked to? The message that it is not your decision what happens to your b This isn't just to arm children against predators but also their peers. The idea that ones body is their own to control is incredibly useful to your 13 year old daughter being pressured by a peer to engage in sexual acts. It is equally as important for kids to respect other people's boundaries and not become the ones doing the pressuring.
Large family gatherings aside, we focus on the right to personal space daily. If I ask my children for a hug and a kiss and they choose not to, I let it go. I simply say "you choose no, that's OK" and move on. If we are playing a game and one of my children starts to say "no" in the middle of a tickling sessions, we stop and the game ends. When my 3 year old is trying to get her sister o do something or picking her up against her will, I interpret the crying for her highlighting that "she says no thank, she doesn't want to be carried or touched right now". As they get older I hope to see my children verbalize this for themselves more but for now I am their voice.
Bottom line is everyone, despite age, has the right to decide who touches them. As we go through this journey of mindful parenting together, let us keep this in mind. Let's teach our children healthy boundaries and how to say no. Let us gently try to educate those around us that our children can choose whether they want to be touched and to respect when someone says no.
Claudia Glassman is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Registered Play Therapist, and Parent Coach. Mighty Oak Parenting was started as a way for her to share all the things she learned from being a therapist as well as a parent. Her vision is to share her knowledge and bring awareness to the importance of the relationship that we have with our children.
**Disclaimer: This blog is the opinion of an individual and is not to be construed as professional advice or a professional relationship. If you are seeking mental health advice contact a therapist in your area. If you are experiencing an emergency, head to your nearest emergency room or call 911.
to respect when someone says no.