Bodies and Boundaries: How to talk with your child about personal space and bodily autonomy - Action for Healthy Kids
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Bodies and Boundaries: How to talk with your child about personal space and bodily autonomy

Teaching children how to maintain their personal space and respect the personal space of others is an important part of supporting healthy relationship skills, self-awareness, assertiveness, responsible decision-making, and physical safety.    

Bodily autonomy is the idea that everyone has the right to make decisions about what happens to their body. This includes teaching children what is appropriate and respectful and what is not can be an important part of preventing sexual abuse and important in helping children get help from trusted adults if they are experiencing abuse.  

Here you’ll find information about how to encourage these skills throughout development, including the language you can use with your child to practice them.  

For most children and teenagers 

When developing a sense of bodily autonomy, most children and teenagers need: 

  • To hear and practice neutral and accurate language to describe body parts. When children have accurate language, they will be better able to communicate with you if something happens involving their body, including abuse, injury, or illness. Using accurate language also communicates that their bodies are not shameful, and all parts of their body, including private parts, deserve the same care and attention. 
  • Open communication with their parents and caregivers. Laying the foundation for open communication starts when children are very young and continues into adulthood. This includes keeping an open, nonjudgmental approach to your children’s questions, concerns, and interests. When children get in trouble or are shamed for asking questions or talking about bodies, they may not feel comfortable asking for help when something happens involving their body that makes them uncomfortable. 
  • Access to trusted adults who aren’t immediate family members. As they get older, children may feel more comfortable talking to adults who aren’t their parents or immediate family. You can talk to your child about how to identify these adults in their day-to-day lives based on your family and parenting values. These adults should be people your child trusts. They might be aunts or uncles, teachers or coaches, or other adults in your family’s life. 
  • Permission to say no to unwanted touch or affection, including hugs and kisses, even from family members. This can be a good way to start a conversation about consent, personal space, and asking permission before touching someone else. 
  • To learn how to respect when someone else says “no.” Bodily autonomy includes respecting other people’s boundaries and space.  

Under 3 

Even before they have language, very young children are learning about their bodies through the way parents and caregivers care for them, touch them, and talk to them.  

You can support healthy development by:   

  • Giving your child a heads-up before changing their diaper or clothing and explaining what you’re doing. This might sound like, “It’s time to change your diaper because we want to be clean.” 
  • Using neutral and accurate language to describe body parts. This might sound like, “That is your penis. I’m touching it to help you clean it, but it is part of your private area and no one should touch it unless they’re helping you clean yourself” or “It looks like you are uncomfortable. Is your vulva itchy?” 

Ages 3-7 

As they grow, children become more self-aware, more curious about their own and other peoples’ bodies, and more physically independent. Their social skill development includes learning about their own and other people’s boundaries. You can help reinforce these skills:   

  • Teach your child about personal space, or “personal bubbles.”  
  • Their own personal space: Advocating for their own personal space might sound like, “You’re hurting me. Stop doing that,” “I don’t want to play like that anymore,” or “I don’t want a hug right now, but I’ll give you a high five!” 
  • Others’ personal space: Teach your child to respect “no” from other people. This might sound like, “Did you ask if he wanted to play that way?” or “I heard her tell you to stop. When we hear that, we stop right away.” 
  • Teach children that if someone is hurting them, they should always tell a trusted adult nearby, and then tell you.  
  • Children may ask questions about their body parts or others’ body parts – this is a normal part of development. You can answer these questions with accurate information, without adding judgement. This might sound like, “Yes, both male and female bodies have nipples” or “Hair grows on boys’ and girls’ private parts when they’re a little older – like 12 or 13” or “No, you may not watch me use the bathroom – I’d like privacy for that. You can ask me questions about how my body works, though, if that’s what you’re curious about.” 
  • This is an important part of abuse prevention and intervention: children who are punished, shamed, or silenced for asking questions or talking about their bodies may be afraid to report when they are being harmed.  
  • Help your child understand who can touch their body for health and safety reasons.  
  • Annual well-child pediatrician visits are a great opportunity to talk with your child about this. Preparing your child might sound something like, “The doctor is going to ask you questions about how your body feels, and will gently touch parts of your body to see how strong your body is. I will be there too. You can ask them any questions you have.” 
  • If your child needs help from teachers or caretakers to use the bathroom, get dressed, or get cleaned up, you can explain to your child that these adults will be touching their bodies – and sometimes their private areas – to help keep them clean and healthy. This might sound something like, “Your penis and your butt are your private area, and no one should touch them except for when your teachers are helping you clean yourself after you go potty.”  
  • When your child can get dressed, use the bathroom, and bathe independently, you can give them more privacy. This might sound like, “Knock knock! Is it OK if I come in to give you a clean towel?” 
  • You can teach your child that it’s okay to say “no,” even to adults. It’s important for children to know that they do not have to allow others (including family members) to touch, hug, or kiss them if they don’t want to. 
  • Sometimes these conversations can be difficult to have with other adults who just want to hug your child. You might say to a well-meaning family member, “We always ask for permission for hugs and kisses, and everyone is always allowed to say no to being touched. You can ask Leyla how she wants to say hello!” You can provide alternative ways to show affection, such as high fives or blowing a kiss. 
  • You can encourage your child to do this by reminding them to ask before touching other people too. This might sound like, “I saw that you were so excited when we saw your teacher in the grocery store! Remember, we always ask before we give hugs to make sure the other person is OK being touched like that.” 
  • Make it a practice to check in with your child about body safety. Bathtime, toileting, or getting dressed can be great opportunities to do this. This might sound like, “Your vulva and your butt are your private areas. Has anyone touched them or asked you about them? If that ever happens, you always tell me about it. You won’t ever be in trouble for telling me if something happens with your body, no matter what anyone else tells you.”  

Ages 8-13 

Children this age are developing more complex relationships and are better able to imagine how others might feel or think. Children, especially girls, may also start to show the first signs of entering puberty.  

  • Continue to keep open conversations about their personal boundaries. This might sound like, “If someone touches you in a way you don’t like, you can say ‘I don’t like that’ in a firm voice. Then you leave and find an adult who you trust, and tell me about it.” You can stress that your child will never get in trouble for reporting abuse or harassment, even if someone else says they will. 
  • It’s important for children to have adults they trust who aren’t family members.  
  • It’s normal for children to start having crushes at this age. Teach your child how to express love, interest, and friendship in positive, healthy, and respectful ways. This might sound like, “I can tell you really like being close to your friend Zane. Remember to always pay attention to their words and actions and make sure they want to be close too. If someone else is uncomfortable with having us in their personal bubble, we should give space.” 
  • Teach your child that if someone makes them uncomfortable, even if they think it’s intended to be friendly, they can come to you without getting in trouble or being shamed. You can help them think about how to navigate it based on the context.  

Ages 13 and up 

The physical, social, and hormonal changes related to puberty will impact your child’s relationships to their own body and to other people. Their social awareness skills are also increasing, so they are better able to imagine how others might be feeling.  

  • Model asking consent and respecting a “no” from another person. You can do this in your interactions with your teen, as well as with other people. This might sound like, “I’m so proud of how you and the marching band performed! Can I give you a kiss?”  
  • Movies and TV shows are a good avenue to continue to talk about bodily autonomy with your teen. This might sound like, “What did you notice about that interaction? Did it seem like that character wanted to do that? How can you tell?” 
  • This can be a good way to discuss body language. If someone seems uncomfortable, it’s a good time to check in about whether they’re comfortable with what’s happening, even if they’ve previously verbally consented. 
  • It continues to be important to keep open communication with your teen. Keeping an open, approachable, nonjudgmental attitude can help them feel safe asking for your support navigating the challenges of growing up. 
  • Even with open communication, teens may feel embarrassed to talk to their parents about their bodies. It can be helpful for your child to have other trusted adults, such as their doctor or another adult family member, who can help them navigate complicated questions. 

 

This project on Improving Mental, Behavioral and Academic Supports to Students and Families, Part 2 is supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $434,555 with 100 percent funded by CDC/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by CDC/HHS, or the U.S. Government.

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