Respecting My Kids: Physical Boundaries

Posted by on Mar 12, 2014 in "Respecting My Kids" series, Parenting

Respecting My Kids: Physical Boundaries

“Excuse me, please!  I have something I want to say.  It’s my birthday, and I’m tired of being pinched, noogied, hit, hugged too tight, picked up, tickled, and touched in ways that I don’t like.  I am six years old, and I’m the boss of my body!”  Ruby’s Studio: The Safety Show

One morning a couple of weeks ago, I was dropping off my 5-year-old, Rachel, at school.  I asked her, “Do you want a hug or no hug today?”  One of her teachers overheard, and called to me in a playful way, “Ooh, you’re setting yourself up with that one!”  While I know that she was joking, I took her comment to mean that, in giving Rachel a choice, I was setting myself up for years of rejection.  Of course, an underlying assumption is that I would take her desire to skip the hug as a rejection in the first place.

This element of personal physical boundaries with loving family members is central to teaching our kids about safety.  If I don’t teach my children how to say no to me, one of the safest people in their lives, how will they know how to stay safe in other relationships or in future situations?

Last summer, I was at the bay with some friends and their kids.  We were swimming, and I saw one of the dads picking up his two young daughters, hanging them over his shoulders, throwing them into the water, and laughing, despite their clear and adamant protests.  I watched as they tried repeatedly to tell him to stop, and finally I commented, “They really don’t seem to like what you’re doing. ” He looked at me, amused, and replied, “Never stopped me before.”

An even more common scenario is the one in which kids are pressured into kissing or hugging family members good-night.  I’ve seen some parents even become angry and shaming: “Go kiss your grandmother.  You’re hurting her feelings.”  I wonder if this reaction is out of embarrassment.  We all want our kids to be polite and respectful.  But when we expect children to put aside their natural feelings and instincts in order to please the adults in their world, are we respecting them?  I believe we unintentionally train them to disregard what they feel and need.  They don’t learn to identify their own physical boundaries; instead, they learn to read what others want from them and to provide it.

How can we begin to change this dynamic?

First, we can introduce the concept of choice with our kids.

Rachel loves hugs but never wants to be kissed unless the kiss is for a “boo-boo.”  In moments when I forget and accidentally kiss her, I acknowledge my mistake to her.  Giving Rachel this respect also helps her to understand that her big sister, Clara, has physical boundaries that need to be respected.  When Clara is upset by one of Rachel’s hugs that has gone on too long or is very tight, Rachel can feel some empathy in imagining how she would feel if someone were to shower her with kisses.

Second, we can check in with our kids about physical routines.

Children want so badly for us to be happy with them.  They may be reluctant to bring up how they really feel about a form of physical contact that has become an expectation.  Inviting them to be honest can make a big difference.  Every now and then, we can ask, “Is this nighttime cuddle something you still want?  Is there anything you want to change?”  I have been surprised a few times by my kids’ answers.

Third, we can notice our kids’ body language and ask about it.

Clara likes to cuddle and hug under certain circumstances– first thing in the morning, and at the end of the day to wind things down.  When she’s just arrived home from school, she’s hungry and full of stories; if I try to give her a hug, I can feel and see her body tense up.  I might say, “You’re not in the mood for a hug right now.”  We don’t need to have a big conversation about it.  We just move on, and Clara connects in a way that feels good to her; she shares the details of her day.

Finally, we can ask ourselves what we get out of the dynamic with our kids.

Do I feel rejected when my children don’t want to be close to me in a certain way?  Do I need them to show affection right now so that I can feel good about myself?  If I’m provoking or teasing them when we play, maybe I just haven’t thought of other ways to relate to them.  If I’m pushing them to sit on a relative’s lap and they are resisting, is it because I myself have a fear of disappointing people?  How did I come to believe that I have the right to require from my kids something they don’t want to give freely?  Maybe I experienced this pressure when I was a child.  How were my own physical boundaries treated?

Some school mornings, Rachel wants to hold my hand and walk me through the classroom so I can see her latest job posted on the wall (“Water Plants” this week), say hello to the class fish, Daisy, and admire her drawing tacked to the wall; she wants a lingering hug and an “I love you.  I’ll see you this afternoon.”  Other mornings, she races into the room without looking back, heads straight to her best friend to compare wiggly teeth, and is perfectly content with a wave from me as I turn in the doorway.  What matters to me is that she can make the decision herself.

Respecting My Kids Series

This post is part of a series called “Respecting My Kids.”  The following are links to other articles in the series:

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About Lynn Davies

I am a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor with a Master of Science in Pastoral Counseling from Loyola University in Maryland. I have been in private practice for over fourteen years and have experience working with adults and adolescents, addressing a variety of issues: anxiety, depression, relationship problems, past or current trauma, eating disorders, self-mutilation, bereavement, parenting concerns, boundaries, and self-care.

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