September 9, 2019
We all recognize that adults are the primary protectors of children. But we can, and should, make children aware that they are allowed to say “no” when they feel that their personal boundaries are not being respected. The more that children learn about boundaries and personal safety issues, the better they are able to help protect themselves and others.
Typically, sexual abuse of a child starts with boundary violations.
What are boundaries? The personal boundaries that we set for ourselves are typically established during our early childhood and are usually based upon the adults who teach us and serve as role models. Boundaries can be physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual – drawing the line for what we find acceptable or unacceptable and increasing our ability to interact with others in a healthy, safe, and comfortable manner. Some boundaries are based on an individual’s perceptions, personal history, culture, and concerns.
Physical boundaries determine who may touch you, how much they may touch, and where they may touch. Examples of violating a child’s physical boundaries may include wrestling, or tickling; “accidental” inappropriate touching; extended hugs or full-contact hugs.
Psychological boundaries determine the rules you will follow and the actions you will and will not do. Examples of violating a child’s psychological boundaries may include ridiculing the teachings of a child’s parents, allowing children to do things against their parents’ wishes, asking a child to keep secrets from his/her parents, speaking graphically about sexual matters, or telling dirty jokes.
Emotional boundaries are how close you feel to someone, how much time you spend with them, and what personal information you share with them. Examples of violating a child’s emotional boundaries may include excessive emailing, calling, or texting; acting possessive of a child; or getting involved in many of the child’s activities.
Spiritual boundaries are the values and beliefs that we hold internally, what we expect of ourselves, such as integrity and ethics. Examples of violating a child’s spiritual boundaries may include asking a child to lie, ridiculing the beliefs or faith of a child or his/her parents, or forcing beliefs on a child that are inconsistent with what he/she is being otherwise taught.
Discuss boundaries with children and help them to understand that you support their personal integrity and that they should speak up when others make them feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Follow these principles in discussing boundaries with children: First, listen to the child’s input as to what (and who) makes them uncomfortable. Second, keep the rules simple, for example: who can touch the child, how much they can touch, and where they can touch. Third, give specific examples and descriptions of what is and is not acceptable behavior. For example, “safe touches” are touches appropriate for the particular relationship: doctors giving stitches, mom kissing a child’s forehead “good night,” high-fiving a teammate, and a dentist cleaning teeth. “Unsafe touches” include such things as hitting, punching, kicking, bullying. Fourth, emphasize and encourage the child to have self-respect and confidence in speaking up when uncomfortable. Finally, emphasize that the child should be watchful and aware, but that doesn’t mean being afraid of everyone.
Remember, one conversation isn’t enough when it comes to helping children to establish and maintain appropriate safety boundaries. Physical and touching boundaries are only the beginning. As children grow older, topics of concern include safety away from home, bullying, self-defense, pornography, social media and internet use, personal information privacy, dating, and more.
Through these conversations we not only help protect our children from abuse, but we also empower them to be role models and examples to other children.
Richard Mathews is Director of Safe Environment for the Diocese of Fort Worth. A former prosecuting attorney, he also served as the General Counsel for the Boy Scouts of America and for Trail Life USA.
We all recognize that adults are the primary protectors of children.