Allying With Children This Holiday Season
Teach children that their voice matters.
Posted Dec 23, 2019 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
Some of the most precious sounds of the holiday season are the laughter and voices of children. Loved ones rush to them to give them hugs and kisses until a little "no" is heard.
What happens then? Will the child's voice be heard and respected? The message is clear that the child is not comfortable, but all too often, this message may go unheard.
Let me paint a picture for you. Over the holidays, many loved ones gather together to celebrate. Inherent in these gatherings are moments where family members and friends want to show affection to children (either by hugs, kisses, tickling, etc.). Although these moments can be precious for children as they are a reminder that they are loved, these moments may alternatively be ones where they are told that their voice doesn't matter.
When children become uncomfortable with physical touch, there may be a “no,” “stop,” pulling away, an uncomfortable grimace, along with other responses, yet in the excitement, these signals can often be overlooked. What message are we sending to children when their discomfort is disregarded, and they are expected to allow loved ones to continue to participate in physically touching them?
Although the disregarding of this “no” is not intended to cause harm to children, the persistent disregarding of children’s boundaries can be harmful. Childhood is a crucial time when children are learning how to set boundaries and use their voices. The foundations established at a young age in their familial and caregiving relationships set the stage for how and what they will be comfortable with in the future.
If children are told that their no may be disrespectful, rude, or disregarded, they may become confused and have challenges in gaining the necessary skill set of being able to set boundaries and say "no" to others. These challenges can persist into future relationships as they age. As a counselor, I can attest to this, as I have worked with numerous adult clients who express great discomfort and difficulties in saying no. Even if they recognize the "no" is healthy for them in setting limitations in relationships, the act of saying no can feel foreign and feels intrusive on others' rights at the expense of their own.
Included in the process of setting the crucial foundation of boundaries is the teaching of consent. According to Himmelstein (2018), consent is "the idea that every physical interaction should be entered into with full agreement from all parties."
This means that children are taught that they are not expected to do anything with their bodies (or let others do anything with their bodies) that they are not fully comfortable with. This teaches them that their body is, in fact, theirs and that they have the ability to say “yes” or “no” to what happens to them.
Himmelstein (2018) further says that teaching children that they have the right to consent or deny any touch elicited on their bodies is crucial. Doing so offers an understanding that their body is theirs, empowers them to use their voice in relationships, aids them in recognizing that boundaries are beneficial, and provides awareness that their body deserves to be respected.
Given the high rates of sexual abuse in childhood, the high rates of intimate partner violence in teenage years, and other challenges that children face in interpersonal relationships, helping children learn to use their voice and set healthy boundaries at a young age is essential (Black et al., 2010; Finklehor et al., 2014). Let's work towards changing the harmful societal norms of asking children to participate in physical touch when they are uncomfortable, and instead help them in learning how to use their voice, how to give consent, and, perhaps even more importantly, teach them that their voice matters.
As with any skill learned, children need to be empowered at a young age to participate in offering consent, saying "no," and setting boundaries when they are uncomfortable. The role that caregivers and adults play in this process is invaluable. Here are some tips to support you in allying with children in setting boundaries this holiday season:
1. Ask a child if they would like to be hugged, kissed, or touched before you do it.
2. If a child says no (or shies away, appears uncomfortable, or demonstrates other “no” non-verbals), respect their boundary.
3. Don’t force a child to do anything they are uncomfortable with (hug, kiss, etc.).
4. Don’t make a child sit in anyone’s lap (even Santa's). Allow them to tell you what they are comfortable with (verbally or non-verbally), and ally with them in that decision.
5. If a child seems uncomfortable when someone is touching, tickling, or teasing them, model healthy boundaries, and ask the adult to stop. Even older kids may have a challenging time telling an authority figure (e.g., an adult) to stop when they are uncomfortable.
6. Do not scold a child for saying “no” to someone who is doing something that they are uncomfortable with. Applaud them for sharing their needs with the person.
7. If you are a caregiver, speak with your children before interacting with loved ones. Tell them that if they are uncomfortable at any point, they can tell you or ask the person to stop. Let them know that they do not have to give a hug, kiss, or do anything that makes them feel uncomfortable.
8. If you are a caregiver, speak with your loved ones and family members before you see them. Let them know that you are working on teaching your children boundaries and that if at any point the child says no, asks them to stop, or seems uncomfortable, it is important that the child's wishes are respected.
This holiday season, let us ally with children and help them to know that their needs for security, empowerment, healthy boundaries, and consent matter.
Black MC, Basile KC, Breiding MJ, Smith SG, Walters ML, Merrick MT, Chen J, Stevens MR. The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS): 2010 Summary Report. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2011.
Himmelstein, D. (2018). After #MeToo, Teaching Consent: Strategies for educating students about boundaries, safety, and sexual assault. School Library Journal, 64(13).
Finkelhor, D., Shattuck, A., Turner, H. A., & Hamby, S. L. (2014). The Lifetime Prevalence of Child Sexual Abuse and Sexual Assault Assessed in Late Adolescence. Journal of Adolescent Health, 55(3), 329–333. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jadohealth.2013.12.026