Body autonomy, boundaries and consent
As I was lighting the fire in the living room lately, my 14 year old daughter and her friend were studying for a health test the next day on the subject of sexuality and gender. It was refreshing listening to their very open, down to earth approach to the topic, testing each other on the meaning of terms like homosexuality, bisexuality, transgender, transsexual, transvestite, homophobia, and the comparison between healthy and unhealthy communication in a sexual relationship, and examples of respecting or violating consent. Do you remember classes like that in school? Eh, no, me neither! And if you did, you’re likely to be a couple of decades younger than me! The girls asked me clarifying questions and generally talked about the subject with the sincerity and sensitivity that it deserves. It’s a really good progression that children, at least at intermediate and high school age, are now being taught not just the biology of sexuality, but also the much more complex issues of consent and relationship dynamics.
There is also now a really positive awakening of awareness around the importance of a child's autonomy over their own body. Parents are educating themselves on how best to talk with their child about their body, correctly naming body parts and speaking respectfully and matter of factly about the dos and don’ts of touching one’s own or another person’s private parts, and empowering children to know they have the right to say no to any touch or treatment, sexual or otherwise, that makes them feel uncomfortable. There are many great resources now available to make it easier for parents to have these conversations with their children. I’ve mentioned some books and helpful websites at the end of this article.
Child abuse prevention. Empowering children with personal safety skills and a strong voice to express boundaries can help protect them from sexual abuse, and goes a long way towards setting them up to have a positive relationship with their body and towards eventually having safer and more enjoyable romantic and sexual relationships. Abusers rely on the powerlessness and vulnerability of children and they rely on the child not telling, and generally work hard to assess this risk through observing the communication between a child and their parents or caregivers.
More and more parents are starting to see that there needs to be congruence between the keeping safe information and the messages they give their child daily through how they touch, treat and relate to them. Most parents are making a big effort to listen to their child's likes and dislikes and giving more choices like "will I help you get dressed or do you want to dress yourself". As opposed to just briskly pulling that top down over their head without barely giving a warning or making a connection. You might remember being handled like that when you were young? And might even have a sense of how that felt as you tune into such memories. Even though your caregiver would have simply been working hard to get things done, it might not have felt so good?
Children need to be given the clear message from the beginning of their life that their body is their body, that they have the right to give or not give consent to touch and affection. The baby makes it very clear if they don’t want to be held by auntie May or Poppa Joe, but need their parent to care more about their feelings than auntie May’s or Poppa Joe’s and respond appropriately. So many of these messages are given and received non-verbally in the day to day interactions between a caregiver and child. Babies, toddlers, school age kids and teens give feedback about what they like and don't like in many ways and parents have to work hard to decode that communication and patiently help their child find the words to express their feelings. This can be slow and sensitive work, but the child seeing that their parent cares enough to slow down and work with them helps to maintain the healthy two way communication that allows the child to confide in their parent in the confidence that their concerns will be taken seriously.
“Come on, give me a big old hug!” There's a big difference between saying to the child "give me a hug!" as opposed to; "would you like a hug?", or commanding “give grandad a big kiss.” We need to be very sensitive to the power difference (age, size, height, authority, dependence) and the extra weight this gives to that which we tell our children to do, and whether our communication is giving them the message that they have the right to say no. Children generally like to please those they are bonded with and have a strong need for their caregiver’s approval, hence they need clear permission to protest. There can be a world of difference between a request and a demand, and what feels like a demand to a child might seem like a request to the adult.
Preserving our child’s innocence and self-autonomy depends on ensuring they are free of feeling responsible for an adult’s emotional needs.
Children learn in so many ways if it's acceptable to say "no" through their parent’s reactions (or lack thereof) long before they gain the words. As their language develops, they need help developing the vocabulary to maintain boundaries; "that doesn't feel good", “you’re too loud it’s scary”, "your hug is too tight I don't like it", “ouch that hurts”. So many of the battles around dressing, eating, bathing, washing teeth and car seats stem from the child tensing up in nervous anticipation and being resistant because of stressful or distressing past experiences around how they are touched.
Kids need to know that we have their back! Showing your child that you take their feelings and their needs seriously and that you’re open to listening when they need help creates security. It’s important to avoid minimising their feelings with statements like; “oh you’ll be fine”, “no don’t worry”, “you’re making a big deal about nothing”, “you’re such a drama queen”, “there’s no blood, you’ll live”, “don’t be silly, you’ll have a great time”. When we trivialise, deny or worse still mock a child for the feelings or worries they express, we train them to distrust and dismiss their uncomfortable feeling. Being in touch with uncomfortable feelings is often the child’s or teen’s best defense as it’s their warning bell that something doesn’t feel right. If your child tells you that their teacher or sports coach was mean to them, don’t assume it’s an exaggeration or jump to the defence of the adult or accuse; “oh so what did you do that caused your teacher to get annoyed with you?” This message can result in a child believing that their parent will take the adult’s side and believe them over their child, it can sadly lead a child to believe that it really is their fault if an adult is unkind to them, or worse still believing that they deserved to be treated disrespectfully. Parents are often perplexed that their child didn’t disclose abuse, yet these messages (which can seem so unrelated to an adult) can sadly lead to a child who has been touched or otherwise treated inappropriately to not trust that they will gain the help and protection they need.
Daily care activities. Touching and treating a child gently in your day to day activities of putting on their shoes, picking them up, wiping little faces or bottoms, restraining them in situations of danger, lifting them into their high-chair or car seat maintains a positive self-image and teaches them to be gentle towards others. Kids generally need the communication around these daily activities to be so much slower, more relaxed, more connected, kinder, more fun than a busy stressed under pressure parent might realize. A child regularly feeling over-powered can result in them over-powering their peers, as children naturally re-enact what they experience. When children are rough handled or touched or hit or pushed or pulled or pinched or poked or tickled against their will, it gives a strong message about who has more rights over their body, and it's not them. It's a challenge to sensitize ourselves to our child’s delicate needs, it's not always easy to slow down to the pace that makes it easier for the child and this shift in mindset can feel daunting for the parent whose parent’s insensitive touch and communication caused them to become desensitized to emotional needs. Yet the more we practice this slower, kinder, more attuned and connected communication, the more harmony and cooperation can be gained.
And just as important as it is to be sensitive to our interactions with our children, parents need to advocate for their kids and not be afraid to say "hey bro it sounds like he wants you to stop" when a relative or friend is overstepping their boundary. Sadly most grooming happens through play. It’s a well-known fact that abusers often groom children through humour and physical play to gain the child’s trust and test where the boundaries lie, and quite often in the presence of parents and caregivers. Will the adult step in or do they even notice or seem uncomfortable? Will the child speak up? It's a way of finding information about the relative safety of victimizing a child.
Sexual abuse is a scary topic for parents to contemplate and many parents feel so powerless. Yet the good news is that there’s much that we can do to protect our child from the tragic experience of sexual abuse. Parents thinking and talking and tackling the topic (with other adults) to educate themselves goes a long way to protecting their child from abuse and preventing the even worse experience of their child being sexually abused then becoming frozen in silence, unable to confide and gain the help they need to prevent a repeat experience. When a child is abused, the paedophile has attempted to contract them into secrecy, shame and silence, yet when the abuse is exposed there is a great hope of the damaging impacts being remedied. All parents need to be aware of how crucial to recovery their response is. If a parent responds to the disclosure of abuse by ignoring, minimising or otherwise neglects to fully engage to ensure they receive the emotional and therapeutic help they need to heal, they inadvertently add layers of secondary trauma and greatly compromise the hope of recovery.
I experienced sexual abuse during my childhood years and can retrospectively see the many contributing factors which made me so vulnerable and defenceless. During many long hard years of recovery, there was much to come to terms with, but dramatically the hardest reality to overcome was the awareness that over several years of abuse, just one truly sincere tuned in conversation that gave me the permission and reassurance that I needed to be honest could have brought it to an end. And then since disclosure at 17, just one conversation that expressed true remorse for the lack of that presence and protection and a genuine interest in retrospectively helping me gain the therapeutic interventions I needed, would have made it dramatically easier to heal the trauma. Perhaps the easiest way to raise children who trust and value their feelings, their needs and their opinions and have a voice to express boundaries, is to show them that you take their feelings, their needs and their opinions seriously. The lack of this level of care is an experience that’s fairly consistent with those who experience ongoing abuse that they are powerless to end. A paedophile convicted of sexually abusing over a thousand boys shared many insights with the author Dr. Hammel-Zabin for her book; “Confessions of a Pedophile”, including these words: “If the paedophile picks up the message that your children can go home and communicate, the pedophile will back off. Those kids are the safest kids in the world.”
“My body belongs to me” and “I said “no” – a kid-to-kid guide for keeping private parts private” make the topic of okay versus not okay touch very accessible and non-threatening for children. “It's Not the Stork!: A Book About Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Families and Friends” does the same and also covers the similarities and differences between boy’s and girl’s bodies, a baby’s conception, growth in the womb, and birth, and an exploration of different configurations of families.
There’s a wonderful free eBook available from the homeandfamily.org.nz website, written by counsellor and therapist Anya Godwin. It’s called “Say “No” to bottom-games” and has some little stories divided into age categories.
The police website www.police.govt.nz has some educational information for parents which can be downloaded, nicely divided into information for different age groups. Just search “keeping ourselves safe”. And likewise there’s some great information that you can access through the child youth and family website, or the CAPS website; child abuse prevention Hauraki www.capshauraki.co.nz/