Teach Consent Without Screwing Up Your Kids

Could "no-touch" policies trigger anxiety and trust issues among our children?

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Jan 12 2017, 9:26pm

Image: Evgenij Yulkin / Stocksy

"People should always ask for your permission before they touch your body," our pediatrician told my seven-year-old daughter at her yearly physical. "I know," my daughter replied, "Mommy and I talk about it all the time."

It's true. We've had endless conversations on the topic of safe touching. I've taught my daughter that "no" means "no," and that if someone touches her, it should never make her feel unsafe or scared. I've also given her permission to say "no thank you," if a friend or a family member offers her a hug or a kiss that she doesn't feel comfortable accepting. I've told her that it doesn't matter if setting physical boundaries hurts someone's feelings. While I want her to be polite and respectful, I also want her to know that it's not her job to take care of other people's emotions.

By teaching her these lessons, I hope she realizes that she's the only one who owns her body.

But, just like parenting philosophies, there are myriad ways to discuss how we talk with our children about consent. Many child safety advocates, parents, and educators question whether saying "no means no" is enough to ensure our children's safety. In fact, some schools are taking the stance that it's better to be "safe than sorry," and so they're adopting a "no touch policy," forbidding teachers from hugging students.

Yet, in an effort to create the safest environments for our kids, do these stringent declarations have a potential downside?  Could "no-touch" policies trigger anxiety and trust issues among our children?

"Children are sensitive to their parents' worries, and how we communicate our concerns affects how they cope with fear," says Sasha Albani, a psychotherapist in San Francisco who works with children, families, and teens.

"Parents often set strict rules because they want to make sure that their child is safe, but parental anxiety rubs off on our kids. Instead of feeling secure, they're more likely to feel emotionally unsettled."

Albani also believes that when parents prevent their children from accepting affection from non-immediate family members, it can blur boundaries instead of clarifying them. When this happens, children may become confused about the "right" ways to show their affection. They may feel anxious when non-immediate family members offer them hugs, and they may feel ashamed when they want physical comfort from a teacher or a friend.

For these kids, physical touch may become equated with potential danger. When physical touch is limited in this way, these kids miss out on valuable lessons about trust and how to ask for support from others.

"For example, they may wonder why it's okay to hug their parents, but not a family friend, uncle, or even a grandparent," says Albani.

As a biracial family, cultural norms also affect the family rules that we set about physical touch. We have many close Asian, Asian-American, and Latina friends whom we refer to as "Aunties." One of the ways that these surrogate family members express their love for my daughter is by showering her with affectionate hugs and holding her hand as she crosses the street. For these friends, physical touch is commonplace and never seen as an intrusion. Instead, it's a way to show love.

Still, I recognize the importance of talking to my daughter about her bodily safety. As a mother, initiating these conversations always feels like walking on a delicate tightrope, and I try to temper my own anxiety so that I don't throw her sense of safety in the world off balance.

Albani says that it's important for parents to talk to their kids about consent in a calm voice and to use words like "body safety," and "stranger safety" to help teach them these lessons. She says these are common phrases that kids also hear from their teachers and their pediatricians, which lets them know that this is a normal topic to discuss.

The day after the election, my daughter went to school distraught. Her teacher saw how upset she was, and offered her a hug.

When she told me about it later that day, I was grateful that she had received physical comfort from a trusting adult. While her teacher could have talked to her about her feelings, young children aren't often soothed by words. When kids fall and get hurt, they don't ask for platitudes, they jump into our laps and wrap their arms around us, because when they're injured or sad, physical contact is an emotional Band-Aid.

There's even psychological evidence that physical touch is healing. When we become emotionally distraught, our bodies propel us into fight or flight mode and our nervous systems go into overdrive. Our hearts race, our palms become sweaty, and our minds swirl around like a merry-go-round. Neuroscientists and psychologists have discovered that one of the most healing balms for this tangle of nerves is physical affection, like a hug. Hugs help us release tension and they even release hormones, such as oxytocin—the love and trust hormone—that helps bring our bodies back to equilibrium.

From the moment of birth, humans are comforted by touch. Immediately after babies are born, they're placed on their mother's chests, because skin-to-skin contact helps secure a maternal bond.

It's terrifying to think that physical contact that appears comforting could also be traumatic and assaultive. In a society where one in six boys and one in four girls are sexually abused before the age of 18, I wonder how I can educate my daughter about safe touch in a way that strengthens her emotional intelligence and teaches her the healthiest ways to approach intimate relationships?

As she ventures into the world of slumber parties and drop-off play dates, her childhood independence lengthens and, as a result, my maternal hold loses its grip. I realize that I have less control over the types of people she interacts with, and I know that this gap will only widen as she reaches adolescence.  

Joanna Schroeder, who's written widely about how to talk to our daughters about consent recommends teaching children how to connect with their "belly instinct," which means helping them to trust their gut feelings.

I'm following Schroeder's advice and teaching my daughter to tune into her body and listen to her instincts. If she tells me that she doesn't like a babysitter, teacher, or another parent, I'm quick to ask her why. Did she notice something in particular? What feelings did the interaction evoke in her body?

By asking my daughter these questions, I hope that she learns how to identify her feelings so that she can understand how our minds and bodies send us powerful signals about personal safety.

I know we can't always control what happens to our kids, but I hope that by equipping my daughter with the power of choice and helping her to hone her intuition, I'm teaching her that trusting herself is often a more powerful tool than fearing the unknown.