24 October 2017
Written by Claire Toi | Clinical Psychologist
Tags: SafetySocial & EmotionalPsychology
Parenting is challenging. It’s ok, go ahead and smile at this understatement. Possibly the most difficult part of parenting is finding the balance between opposing positions. Balance between being a helicopter and a free-range parent. Balance between treats and healthy food. And then something that is on most of our minds: finding the balance between raising a warm and friendly child who will go to anyone and a child who shies away from strangers or even familiar people.
You might be from a generation of children that was warned to stay away from strangers. ‘Stranger danger’ made a nice scaremongering catch-phrase, but we now know that the majority of children who are abducted or abused in some form are the victims of people that they know. So, where does this leave us?
Rather than teaching our children who to stay away from, let’s help guide our children towards developing body autonomy; help them learn to trust their instincts about people, and feel confident to leave a difficult or threatening situation.
So, what is Body autonomy?
Body autonomy means that the owner of the body is in charge of the body. Yes, your child as little as he is, is in charge of his own body. How do we teach body autonomy to young children?
- You can start teaching this from infancy. Yes, really! Mentioning what you are doing when you are touching your baby’s body can start early and become a good habit for caregivers, e.g. “Mommy is rubbing cream on your legs now.”
- Name body parts with their proper anatomical names, that includes the genitals. Perhaps you are uncomfortable with using anatomical terms because these were never used with you while you were growing up. This discomfort can be passed on to your child. By starting off with using anatomical names instead of cute names, genitals will be regarded as part of your child’s body and will lessen any shame a child may develop. We are also giving children the language to communicate with someone they feel safe with if these body parts are ever affected. Interestingly, children who are body confident and able to label their body parts accurately, are less appealing to potential abusers. 
- Don’t force your child to hug you or others. This does not mean that you will be raising an ill-mannered child who will be rude to Aunt Martha who just wants a kiss and a hug. Offer options: Would you like to hug Aunty? Or wave hello? Even a high five or handshake may be a good option for many children. This includes coercing children to hug each other because we think it would be cute. We are teaching our children that they are allowed to have boundaries and that just because we are older/bigger, we can still respect these boundaries.
- Ask for permission before touching your child’s body. Think about how many times a day we pick up a small child, whether they are ready for it or not; or suddenly shove a wipe in their faces. Imagine if this happened to you-you might feel that you don’t have control over your body, frustrated and that anyone who is bigger than you is allowed to do what they want to your body.
- Remind your child that their body belongs to them - “your body is your body, and you can say no”.
- Talk it through. Ask other adults who may need to touch your child’s body, such as your healthcare practitioner, to talk through what they will be doing.
You are teaching your child about consent. Consent has to do with anything related to our own bodies, not only sexual consent. You are showing her that when she does not give consent, that choice is respected. This also helps her learn to respect others’ bodies. Teaching consent is easier taught early rather than trying to fix something later.
Helping your child to trust their instincts
- Allow your child to feel their feelings, not deny them. Avoid saying things like, “Shhh, don’t cry, it’s not that sore.”
- Be responsive. If your baby is crying, pick her up. If your toddler is having a tantrum, sit with him, let him know that you are there and ready to help. Knowing what true security and comfort feel like means that your child won’t be confused by inappropriate gestures by other people.
- Talk about the special feeling that they have inside their bodies called intuition. For many children, this feeling might be in their tummy, but it may be elsewhere for your child. This special intuition feeling lets us know if something feels safe or not safe. It’s like a tummy alarm. And they can trust this alarm. They get to put this alarm into practice when meeting new people. Try not to direct how your child should interact with a new person, this would be overriding their intuition, but allow them to figure out how they want to interact with that person. If they want to be shy and hide behind your legs for a bit while they assess the person, that’s ok.
- Give examples. You can give examples from your own experience when your intuition has been helpful.
- Listen for your tummy alarm. Let your little one know that if their tummy alarm is going off, it’s because they are in a tricky situation. No matter who the person is that they are with, if it feels tricky, they can leave. They can say no. They can say stop. And they can find someone who is safe.
- Talk about who would be safe - this might be someone they know, e.g. you, but if they are in a strange situation, a safe person could be someone working in a shop, a mom with children. Chat about these ideas with your child when you are out and ask him/her to point out who they think would be a safe person.
Be proactive in talking about these things, stay connected with your child and be your child’s voice when others overstep boundaries to model firm boundaries and consent.
: Source: Jayneen Sanders, an advocate for Body Safety and Respectful Relationships Education.